Visiting Washington on September 15-17, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov asked for the US to consider military equipment sales to Russia. Conversely, Serdyukov announced despite US objections that Russia would sell state-of-the-art anti-ship missiles to Syria. And in line with Russian policy, he warned against US deliveries of military equipment to Georgia.
Through it all, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed appreciation for Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, front and center of the US agenda. In a post-visit interview, Serdyukov seems to feel encouraged on potential US military technology transfers to Russia, which his ministry’s senior consultant Ruslan Pukhov characterizes as a “revolutionary development,” should it materialize (Bloomberg, September 21). Ultimately, Serdyukov elicited a mere expression of US “regret” over the highly destabilizing Russian missile sale to Syria. And he appeared successful again (as is Russian policy thus far) in opposing US defense assistance to Georgia.
As Serdyukov told his Russian media entourage in Washington, “the Russian side is raising the issue of arms deliveries to Georgia at meetings with the Western partners. We tell them that this worries us and hinders our cooperation with Israel, the United States, or anyone who in one way or another is arming the present Georgian regime. The Russian side will undertake every effort to minimize the consequences of arms deliveries to Georgia” (Interfax, September 17). However, Moscow knows that US military assistance to Georgia is strictly confined to the operation of Georgian troops in Afghanistan, and does not involve the defense of Georgia itself.
Since the 2008 Russian invasion, Georgia has practically become a military vacuum, lacking such basic defensive equipment as anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades or air defenses, while facing massive Russian forces, and devoid of strategic depth. US policy is generally described as an undeclared arms embargo on Georgia, ruling out purely defensive items, including non-lethal equipment. In practical terms, this policy takes the form of stalling on requests submitted by Georgia or by US companies willing to work with Georgia. Without rejecting them outright, the State Department and Pentagon have simply not been acting on such requests during the last two years. The default policy seems to be one of neither denying nor approving.
Serdyukov’s injunctions were the latest in a continuing series, hinting that US defense assistance to Georgia could affect Russian cooperation on issues of interest to the United States. Marking the second anniversary of the August 2008 war, General Nikolai Makarov, Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, falsely charged, “Arms deliveries to Georgia are in full swing. Georgia’s military potential is significantly higher today, compared to August 2008.” He added reproachfully that Georgian soldiers are now gaining combat experience in Afghanistan. On the same anniversary, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry released a comprehensive document accusing the United States of violating international arms control agreements, with arms deliveries to Georgia among the accusations. The document even challenges US military assistance to Israel, alleging that it violates arms control agreements on a number of counts (Interfax, August 7, 8; EDM, August 13). Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin followed up, criticizing the United States for “continuing to rearm Georgia” (Kommersant, August 30).
All these claims are targeting US and NATO audiences. Russian officials know that this audience is fully aware that their claims are baseless, and should not to be taken at face value. These are not statements of fact, but are rather intended as preemptive vetoes. The purpose is simply to draw, or reinforce, Russian red lines against US and NATO policies. Moscow’s logic would ban US or NATO countries’ defense assistance to countries facing Russian-orchestrated conflicts, or any countries in Europe’s eastern neighborhood.
The US non-approval policy on Georgia has ramifications that far transcend the bilateral relationship. Georgia is the number one troop contributor (per capita) to the US-led operations in Afghanistan, as part of Georgia’s efforts to qualify for NATO membership. It had earlier performed similarly in Iraq, and has in all these years provided unlimited passage and overflight rights for US-led coalition forces. The country’s security is key to the energy security of US allies in Europe. Yet Georgia is being denied the means to defend itself, as a matter of undeclared US policy, with no policy review in sight.
Thus, Moscow may well conclude that its own interpretation of the “reset” is prevailing in US-Russia relations. That interpretation requires some level (varying from case to case) of US deference to Russian interests regarding formerly Soviet-ruled countries. With Georgia the most de-Sovietized and Western-oriented of all these countries, and a staunch US ally, Moscow hopes to turn Georgia into a demonstration case of Washington short-changing, or de-prioritizing of an ally’s security interests in deference to Russian interests. Moscow means to suggest that it is a high-risk proposition for a country in Russia’s “near abroad” to throw its lot with the United States and NATO. It wants countries nearby and farther afield to look at this situation and draw their conclusions.
With its massive forces in place, Russia can not conceivably feel threatened militarily by Georgia. By warning against US defense cooperation with Georgia, Moscow pursues the political goal of undermining US credibility as a regional security actor and alliance leader. It also wants to set a precedent of Russia screening which countries may or may not be eligible for US and NATO military assistance, thus forcing the US to take account of Russian interests. Beyond an undeclared and unrecognized veto on “near abroad” countries joining NATO, Moscow also seeks a similar veto capacity on Washington’s strategic partnerships with such countries. Georgia is the test case.