What Signal Does Washington’s Arms Embargo against Georgia Tell us About US Policy towards Ukraine?

By Taras Kuzio

An illuminating analysis in the reputable British magazine Jane’s Defence Weekly (June 29) alleges that while the US denies it has instituted an arms embargo on Georgia, the reality is that one is in place. A Janes Defence Weekly (JDW) correspondent at the Eurosatory defence exhibition in Paris in mid-June wrote of the high level of frustration among Georgians seeking to buy defensive weaponry.

But, as JDW wrote, “representatives of US and Israeli companies stated that sales of defence equipment to Georgia remain obstructed by both US government policy and pressure from the Russian government.’ It remains unclear if the unofficial — and duplicitous – arms embargo was instituted by the previous George W. Bush administration or by its successor, the Obama administration.

The most unpleasant aspect of the unofficial embargo is that it is Georgia that is being punished, despite the fact that it was invaded by Russia and that two Georgian provinces came under Russian occupation. In other words, this is a similar US policy to that which punished Azerbaijan in the 1990s even though it had suffered an invasion and occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by neighboring Armenia.

As the JDW correspondent pointed out, “Other Georgian officials expressed their frustration with the situation by pointing out that ‘the US even prohibits the sale to us of blank ammunition to be used for training. Obviously pushing the ‘reset’ button with Russia is more important than our military.’” So, the infamous ‘re-set’ is again the center of the problem, with Russia being given veto power by Washington over arms sales to Georgia.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visits to Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, similar to Vice President Joe Biden’s tour of the region in 2009, were meant to re-assure countries in Russia’s proximity that Washington has not forgotten them.

As the Economist (July 8) wrote, “The most sensitive part of her voyage” was to Georgia. “Mrs Clinton did not mince her words when she arrived in Tbilisi, describing Russia’s military action in August 2008 as an ‘invasion’ and an ‘occupation.’’ She declared, “I want to say publicly what I have said privately. I came to Georgia with a clear message from President Obama and myself. The United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States does not recognise spheres of influence.”

Very good words, but what do they really mean?

If the US has a de facto arms embargo instituted against Georgia, gives Russia a veto over arms sales and at the same time is not demanding that Moscow pull back its troops to pre-conflict lines in order to adhere to the EU peace settlement, then Secretary Clinton’s words and the Obama administration’s policies are merely empty words devoid of any real meaning. It would be better to be up front and honest.

In a piece written by the Economist about Secretary Clinton’s visit to Georgia, she is quoted as saying, “Russia’s unilateral recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia does not exempt the Kremlin from the 2008 agreement brokered by France, under which Moscow agreed to withdraw its troops to pre-war positions. Russia, which has now built permanent military bases in the territories, will be in no hurry to do so.”

Moscow has understood that this rhetoric is not backed up by concrete actions and threats, as both the US and EU rushed to ‘re-set’ relations with Moscow less than six months after it had invaded and occupied Georgia. In reality, Washington and the EU have failed to punish Russia for not adhering to the ceasefire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy which called for Russia to pull its troops back to pre-engagement lines. Instead, Russia has built large forward-action military bases that are offensive, not defensive, in nature.

With the southern border of South Ossetia less than 100 kilometers from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, it is little wonder that the Georgians are anxious. Such anxiety is even more understood as Russian officials refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the democratically elected and internationally recognized Georgian president, institute espionage and subversion against Georgia and continually raise the prospect of regime change (see the article by Vladimir Socor in EDM, July 9).

What does all of this tell us about Ukraine and the broader international community?
In the case of Ukraine, it sends an additional signal that Kyiv is on its own if it were to be embroiled in a conflict with Russia, the outcome of which being the occupation of Sevastopol and/or the Crimea. The 1994 security assurances provided by the five nuclear powers are in effect worthless.

The test case for these security assurances came in September 2003 when Russia began building a dam from the Russian side of the North Caucasus (Kuban region) to the island of Tuzla to the east of Crimea. President Leonid Kuchma cut short a state visit to Latin America, returned to Ukraine and mobilized security forces to repel the attempted covert Russian annexation of Tuzla. Kyiv turned to NATO under the 1997 Charter it signed with the international organization and requested security consultations, but these were turned down by the NATO secretary general (for more details on this see: https://www.kyivpost.com/news/opinion/op_ed/detail/19328).

The message is clear – in the event of a conflict with Russia, you are on your own. Ukraine’s security assurances were given up in return for the country joining the NPT in December 2004 and giving up its nuclear weapons by 2006. Ukraine inherited the third largest nuclear weapon stockpile in the world when the USSR disintegrated and also inherited a large number of military-industrial plants that produced nuclear weapons. This included reportedly the largest plant to manufacture nuclear weapons in the world – including Pivdenmash (in Russian Yuzhmash) – which Kuchma was director of.

The duplicity of the nuclear powers towards Ukraine’s security (let alone towards Georgia, which never had nuclear weapons in the USSR) sends precisely the wrong message from the US and EU North Korea and Iran. Why should Tehran and Pyongyang be so foolish as to give up their nuclear weapons or nuclear programs if any security assurances they are to be provided with by the West are not worth the paper they are signed on?

It is time for a re-think’ and a ‘re-set’ of Washington’s relations with Georgia and Ukraine.