US Policy Toward Georgia at a Crossroads

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 134

The USS Stout seen anchored in the Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi, on Tuesday, July, 14, 2009. USS Stout dropped anchor Tuesday in Georgia's Black Sea waters ahead of joint naval exercises widely seen as a show of American support for the former Soviet nation that was crushed in last year's war with Russia.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s firm stand on Georgia during the July 6-7 Moscow summit, to be followed by Vice-President Joseph Biden’s visit to Georgia on July 22, marks a crossroads in U.S. policy toward Georgia. With the Obama administration’s transition process now practically complete, the United States cannot much longer postpone the decisions required for turning the declared strategic relationship with Georgia into a fully-fledged reality.

Within that partnership, Georgia had advanced from net consumer to net provider of security, regionally and internationally, thanks mainly to U.S. assistance prior to 2008. The U.S. strategic investment in Georgia, while low on the military side, produced high returns to the United States and the West generally. It made Georgia an active troop contributor to U.S.- and NATO-led expeditionary operations and it consolidated the crucial Georgian link in the energy transit corridor to Europe. Russia’s August 2008 invasion -capping years of threats and pressures- punished Georgia for its national choice of strategic partnership with the United States, NATO aspirations, and role in Europe’s energy security.

The invasion and continuing pressures underscore Georgia’s exposure to Russian retaliation for the country’s Western choice. By the same token this situation reflects the lopsided, incomplete nature of the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership, in the form inherited by Obama from the previous administration (with the incumbent defense secretary providing a link of continuity between the two). Pending a much-awaited, still uncertain policy review by the Obama administration, Georgia as a U.S. strategic partner is being denied the basic means for defense of its now-reduced national territory in the face of continuing Russian pressures.

In his discussions with Russia’s leaders in Moscow, President Obama reaffirmed U.S. support for Georgia’s independence, sovereign right to choose its alliances, and the Russian-breached principle of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Obama took these positions publicly as well as in his conversations with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and other Russian officials. More significantly than the restatement of these positions, Obama publicly singled out Georgia as a major point of difference between the United States and Russia (Interfax, July 6, 7).

While listing the U.S.-Russia common interests as his administration perceives them at this stage (not unlike the failed Bush administration on some major counts), Obama nevertheless raised the issue of Georgia to a higher level in the U.S.-Russia dialogue during this visit and probably in follow-up contacts. Implicitly, he raised Georgia to a higher level on his administration’s list of priorities, calling Russian and world attention to the unacceptable post-August 2008 situation. The administration’s overriding priorities, however, remain those on which it solicits Russia to "help."

Vice-President Biden’s imminent visit to Georgia (Civil Georgia, July 13) will provide a first test of the Obama administration’s approach to this strategic relationship. With the administration’s policy review pending, Biden will not be in a position to announce any major decisions or initiatives. He will, however, almost certainly indicate the broad gist of U.S. intentions and, equally significantly, register Georgia’s assessments and proposals to fully develop the strategic relationship with the new U.S. administration.

Georgia currently lacks serious capabilities for homeland defense against conventional military attack. It has no air defense systems to speak of, no worthy anti-tank systems, or training for conventional territorial defense operations, and a dire shortage of officers with modern training. The country remains to all intents and purposes a military vacuum, exposed to external aggression or mischief. Dramatizing this gap last August, the Russian invasion found the best Georgian troops operating with U.S. forces in Iraq (where Georgia was the second-largest troop contributor among U.S. allies on a per capita basis) while all Georgian forces, in and out of the country, lacked training and hardware for homeland defense.

The gaps in Georgia’s defense capabilities stem from the misplaced focus of U.S. training in years past (for counter-insurgency and expeditionary operations, not conventional homeland defense), misperception of threats and challenges (fixation on terrorism and other new types of threat, neglecting classical military threats), and misreading of Russian intentions (perceived obsolescence of military power as a Russian policy instrument). Mainly for such reasons, the United States and other NATO allies have failed to provide Georgia with basic defensive capabilities.

This is not a situation to which the United States would want to relegate its strategic partners. First in the order of priorities at the moment is U.S.-assisted training of troops for homeland defense. Once such training gets under way, the necessary anti-tank and air defense capabilities can follow in short order. Georgia estimates the total costs at some $200 million. In a separate troop-training program with adequate funding, Georgia is ready to deploy a battalion for operations with U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s south, with no Georgian national caveats.