Georgia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) held NATO-Georgia Exercise 2019—a computer assisted/command post exercise (CAX/CPX)—at the Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC), between March 18 and 29. The NATO-Georgian JTEC facility is based at the Krtsanisi National Training Center, near Tbilisi. This year’s NATO-Georgia drills involved 343 personnel from 24 Alliance member states and partner countries. Military units and civilian specialists from Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia (the Czech Republic), Germany, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, the United States, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Sweden participated (1tv, March 18).
NATO-Georgia Exercise 2019 is organized (since last year) through the Substantial NATO-Georgian Package (SNGP) framework—a set of 14 defense capacity–building initiatives that Tbilisi and the Alliance agreed to at the Wales (2014) and Warsaw (2016) summits. The first exercise in this series was held in 2016, and involved 14 allied and partner countries (Agenda, March 18). The brigade-level exercises are scheduled by NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) and carried out by the Georgian General Staff, with the mentoring of NATO Land Command (LANDCOM) and NATO Joint Forces Training Center (JFTC) (1tv, March 18).
During the opening ceremony in the Georgian Army Hall, First Deputy Defense Minister Lela Chikovani said that the 2019 exercises “will strengthen Georgia’s self-defense capabilities, but [are] in no way targeted against any nation,” thus seeking to defuse Russia’s nervousness about Georgia’s further rapprochement with the North Atlantic Alliance (Agenda, March 18). LANDCOM commander, US Army Lieutenant General John C. Thomson III, and deputy commander/chief of staff of NATO JFTC, Brigadier General Ladislav Jung, also attended the training and associated ceremonies in Tbilisi.
During the exercises, Georgian Minister of Defense Levan Izoria emphasized that NATO-Georgia Exercise 2019 is “an important exercise for Georgia and a significant milestone in strengthening NATO-Georgian military and political cooperation” (Agenda, March 18). In turn, the editor-in-chief of the military-analytical journal Arsenali, Irakli Aladashvili, believes that the current drills were in many ways “unique” for what they signified about the shape of Georgian-NATO relations. According to Aladashvili, in 2018 and in previous years, several military exercises, including Noble Partner and Agile Spirit, were held in Georgia, with the participation of more than 3,000 military personnel from NATO member countries. Aladashvili further underlined that in the latest exercise, in March 2019, which was held in the NATO-Georgia format, “for the first time, the Georgian General Staff was tasked with leading a [simulated] multinational crisis response. It is also the first exercise that involved NATO planning processes from start to finish.” As he noted, “It is extremely important that the Georgian General Staff [gain experience] leading a multinational crisis response exercise and multinational military brigade on Georgian territory.” These drills crucially “also tested [the participating militaries’] ability to adopt a comprehensive approach to a non–Article V crisis response,” he underscored (Author’s interview, March 30).
Aladashvili believes that even though Georgia has still not received an invitation to join the Alliance, military exercises held on Georgian territory explicitly training to respond to a “non-Article V crisis” mean that NATO allies are ready to provide this South Caucasus country with additional security guarantees of some sort in the event of further aggression from Russia (Author’s interview, March 30). This view is supported by the high level of NATO representation at the exercises, as well as by statements made by the political and military leaders of the North Atlantic Alliance during the event.
On March 25, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Georgia to observe the joint training. Stoltenberg stated, “The exercise shows how NATO and Georgia are stepping up their cooperation. Georgia is one of NATO’s closest partners, working with the Alliance on security in the Black Sea region. Georgia is also the largest non-NATO contributor to the Alliance’s training mission in Afghanistan and it contributes to the NATO Response Force. Last summer in Brussels, NATO leaders reconfirmed the 2008 Bucharest Summit decision that Georgia will become a member of NATO” (Nato.int, March 25). Moreover, on March 27–28, senior uniformed officials from the NATO Military Committee, the Alliance’s highest military authority and primary advisory body on defense issues, visited Georgia. As Military Committee chairman, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach said, Georgia is “a valued NATO partner and a significant contributor to NATO-led operations and missions.” He continued, “Georgian troops have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO for many years. Georgia is the biggest non-NATO contributor to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan.” Sir Peach also said that NATO “fully supports” Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and he called on the Russian Federation to end its recognition of and withdraw its forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Tskhinvali region) (Civil.ge, March 28).
The Military Committee chairperson added, “In response to Russian military buildup in the Black Sea region, the Alliance has increased cooperation with Georgia at sea.” He promised to strengthen practical cooperation between NATO and Georgia with the aim to help the country “defend itself as well as advance preparations toward NATO membership” (Civil.ge, March 28).
Tbilisi-based political analyst David Avalishvili is confident that the main goal of NATO in carrying out these kinds of exercises, besides strengthening cooperation with Georgia, is to “restrain Russia by creating stronger military cooperation infrastructure in the Black Sea.” Avalishvili noted that during the last two NATO summits “an idea was considered for creating a Black Sea military cooperation format of 28 + 2, with the participation of Georgia and Ukraine. And although this idea was never realized, Alliance leaders have not forgotten about it” (Authors interview, March 30).
Moscow responded to NATO-Georgia Exercise 2019 with aggressive statements from its client regimes in occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “This is an open challenge to the national security of Abkhazia,” Sukhumi’s “foreign ministry” said in a statement, adding, “We urge Tbilisi and Brussels to realize the destructiveness of such a frank demonstration of their military ambitions” (Civil.ge, March 29). Meanwhile, the “minister of foreign affairs” of South Ossetia, Dmitry Medoev, said that military exercises and the visit of the NATO secretary general as well as the Military Committee to Georgia “are regarded as a continuation of the Alliance’s provocative policy” (Civil.ge, March 29).
According to Georgia’s Ministry of Defense, more large-scale maneuvers with the participation of NATO member countries will take place on Georgian soil before the end of the year (Imedinews, October 4, 2018; Mod.gov.ge, November 5, 2018). Each such exercise will further draw Georgia toward closer integration with NATO.