United States Considers Supplying Anti-Tank Weapons to Georgia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 153

US soldiers test firing a Javelin missile (Source: U.S. Army)

The news that, on November 20, the US State Department had approved the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Georgia (Dsca.mil, November 20), caused euphoria in the South Caucasus country. Tbilisi is looking to buy from the Pentagon 410 of the missiles and 72 launch units. The total value of the proposed deal is $75 million (Civil Georgia, November 21). This decision has both military and political significance for Georgia.

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili long petitioned the Barack Obama administration to allow his country to purchase advanced defensive weapons, including Javelins (Civil Georgia, March 31, 2011; January 18, 2012; February 13, 2012). And in an interview with Foreign Policy from early 2011, he declared, “What Georgia really needs is something that it cannot get from anywhere else and that’s anti-air and anti-tank [weapons] and that’s completely obvious […] that’s where should be the next stage of the cooperation” (Foreign Policy, March 30, 2011).

But Georgia was never able to obtain Javelin missiles, because of distrust among some high-ranking officials in Washington of the Georgian authorities as well as concerns about unduly aggravating Moscow. Tornike Sharashenidze, a professor at the Tbilisi-based Institute of Public Affairs, told this author that the attitude within the United States government changed after Russia provoked a war in eastern Ukraine with “technology” tested in 2008. Moscow seized the Donbas region, like Crimea before—and even earlier Abkhazia and South Ossetia—under the pretext that the local people were expressing their right to self-determination and needed to be protected.

“Georgia was not given weapons before, because they [some US authorities] considered it an irresponsible [sic] player in the international arena. But after 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Donbas, Western actors saw who in fact was acting irresponsibly. Therefore, the attitude changed dramatically: [the new openness to selling] the Javelin is only a symptom, a ‘marker’ demonstrating this change [at the highest levels in Washington],” Sharashenidze stressed. In his opinion, the permission of the State Department to supply Georgia with defensive weapons “refers more to the dynamics of US-Russian relations than to Georgian-American relations” (Author’s interview, November 25).

Some local experts believe that the possible supply of US weapons to the Georgian Army testifies to the readiness of the United States to further support Georgia’s interests in its rapprochement with NATO. “Despite the fact, that NATO has no direct role in the delivery of US Javelin missiles to Georgia, European capitals [of NATO member countries] have to take into account the fact that the leader of the Alliance expresses deep confidence in Georgia. This does not mean, that Tbilisi will soon receive a MAP [Membership Action Plan—an important step toward fully joining NATO], because some European states still oppose this; but the demonstration of US military support is very important,” Vakhtang Masaya, a doctor of military sciences, told the author. “The US has always been more optimistic about Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic perspectives than our European partners. However, the deal still must be approved by Congress and signed by President [Donald] Trump,” the expert noted (Author’s interview, November 25).

Irakli Aladashvili, the editor-in-chief of the military-analytical magazine Arsenali, explained that Javelin anti-tank missiles would be helpful for Georgia in case of a resumption of Russian aggression: “The Georgian Army has specialized anti-tank units, armed with anti-tank weapons of Soviet and Russian production, including RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. But these systems are not nearly as effective as Javelins,” Aladashvili said. According to the editor of Arsenali, after the August 2008 war, Russia deployed powerful tank units in occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Among them are the main tanks of the Russian army, the T-90 Vladimir. In South Ossetia, Russian tanks are based only a few hundred meters from the strategic Baku–Tbilisi–Poti, which connects the eastern and western halves of Georgia (Author’s interview, November 25).

Several months ago, during the US Vice President Michael Pence’s visit to Georgia, dozens of US military vehicles passed through the Poti–Tbilisi highway. They were in the country to participate in multinational military exercises. Speaking in the Georgian capital, Vice President Pence condemned the occupation of Georgian territories by the Russian Army and said the US was ready to significantly strengthen is cooperation with Georgia in the defense sphere. Washington did not intend to leave its allies in Eastern Europe to face Russia alone, he stressed (Civil Georgia, August 1).

In addition to modern main battle tanks (see above), Moscow has deployed substantial advanced weaponry to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including long-range artillery. Thus, a clear demonstration of US support is important to Georgia against the background of these deployments as well as regular menacing maneuvers carried out by Russian forces in the occupied territories (see EDM, June 22, July 10).

“The delivery of Javelin missiles to the Georgian army is substantial in practical and political terms. But this weapon cannot, by itself, solve the problem of securing all of the country’s strategic infrastructure, include pipelines that pass through our territory,” noted Davit Avalishvili, an expert with the independent information and analytical portal GHN. “Russia can inflict an artillery, missile or bomb strike on this infrastructure and on any Georgian city even without [Russian forces] leaving the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he added. “Such aggression can, first of all, block the Georgian government from pursuing a cautious and rational policy. Second, [it can obstruct] Washington’s political support. And the Javelin is a demonstration of such support,” Avalishvili declared (Author’s interview, November 25).

In 2015, Georgia signed a contract with France on the purchase of French air-defense systems (Kommersant, July 12, 2015). However, the deal hit some serious snags (Kommersant, April 19, 2017) and has yet to be implemented. Perhaps some of these problems were related to internal French politics regarding Moscow (see EDM, April 27). Nevertheless, France’s determination to demonstrate political support for Georgia played a positive role in stabilizing the situation and stopping Russia’s large-scale provocations along the administrative borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia: following the announcement of the Franco-Georgian air-defense deal, there have been no further recorded instances of Russian aircraft or drones originating from the occupied territories overflying Georgia proper. The US Javelin sale could play a similar role.