There are many telltale signs of what the US’s grand scheme of things may be in the wake of events in Ukraine. One of these is the efforts being made to finally bring Georgia closer to its long-expressed goal of eventual NATO membership.
Of all the countries on the Eastern fringes of the European Union Georgia has perhaps the least claim to being a future NATO member. Under Zviad Gamsakhurdia, its first and virulently anti-Soviet president, it was certainly pro-Western but didn’t even have an army. Nor has it controlled the whole of its recognised territory since Abkhazia and South Ossetia sought to secede not long after Gamsakhurdia was elected.
After Gamsakhurdia’s overthrow by criminal gangs their chosen successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, remained the darling of the West in theory but a pure opportunist in practice, as the West well knew. Even if he had run the country on Western lines he would never have been a trustworthy ally, merely someone so bad they couldn’t risk him falling into the other side’s camp.
Eventually the West felt confident enough to start discovering Shevardnadze’s many crimes, at least twenty years after ordinary Georgians had done so, and Mikheil Saakashvili was installed in another non-democratic takeover. All that needs to be said of his now-ousted regime is that the government elected to replace him is rapidly losing popularity because it has prosecuted a few of his former ministers, but not every single one, as most Georgians continue to demand.
With such a history Georgia is not an attractive prospect for the North Atlantic alliance, regardless of its strategic location between East and West and between the US and the countries it sells arms to and foments revolution in. Several countries, such as Burma, have previously been arms trafficking hubs and terrorist training bases without being offered a part in any alliance.
Yet Georgia’s new Foreign minister, Maia Panjikhidze, is doing more than trying to make the best of the country’s historic bad job. She said earlier this month that Georgia could now join NATO without needing the Membership Action Plan (MAP) it was refused when Saakashvili applied for it. Apparently this is because it meets the NATO criteria “to some extent”, whereas previously it had been expected to do so fully. So what is going on?
One law for one
Georgia still does not meet NATO requirements in terms of territorial integrity or human rights. It contributes more troops per capita to NATO operations than any other non-member state, but this should be seen in context. The Georgian Armed Forces depend so heavily on US funds, equipment and training that they are effectively American troops. The US knows what it is getting from Georgian troops, even if the troops themselves don’t always know what they are doing.
Furthermore, the fallout from the 2008 war has left Georgia in a state of frozen conflict with Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and potentially any number of other issues on which the countries disagree. NATO knows that accepting Georgia into membership might oblige it to confront Russia in its defence. It does not want to bring about the Third World War all the present world leaders were brought up trying to avoid.
As Tony Rinna, a journalist and geopolitical analyst, has written: “[Even if] NATO is going to accept Georgia, NATO needs to be willing to prove that it will defend the geographic integrity of its members. There is little point on NATO extending its hand to Georgia if, when push comes to shove, it is unwilling to defend the country from the very threat or situation for which membership was considered in the first place.”
NATO accession is not a quick process. Russia has repeatedly said it does not agree with Georgia joining NATO and it has been more consistent in this position than NATO has in its encouragement to Georgia. That is why the West wants to use such a perceived threat, real or otherwise, at every opportunity to prove that Georgia is the poor victim prior to its actual accession, and this ploy will also test NATO resolve as whether it will really will defend it or not.
This prospect is probably more alarming for NATO than for Russia, as it does everything it can to conduct anti-Russian actions by other means, such as the ordered Ukrainian coup, rather than openly confront it in its own backyard, while Russia does not display similar scruples. But according to Panjikhidze, this is not a substantial concern now, and Georgia is closer than ever to NATO, even if it means the end of civilization as we know it.
Discussion of Georgia’s NATO prospects has ostensibly been aroused by the proximity of the NATO summit in Cardiff, Wales, in September. Panjikhidze claims that she has spoken to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, about this and received a positive response. “One thing is beyond any doubt – the progress achieved by Georgia will be adequately acknowledged at the Wales summit. This is the main message we received from the German Chancellor,” she said.
Merkel has in fact stated publicly that a Membership Action Plan for Georgia will not be discussed during the summit in Wales and she does not expect granting one to be on the agenda. Germany was among the NATO members flatly opposed granting Georgia a MAP at the Bucharest summit in April, 2008, which took place even before that August’s Georgian-Russian war.
At the NATO Parliamentary Assembly spring session in Vilnius on May 30 NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Alliance member states “to consider” moving Georgia closer to NATO at its summit in Wales in September by granting it a Membership Action Plan (MAP). But this too is contingent on Georgia meeting the necessary criteria, including holding exemplary elections, reforming the judiciary and having a professional military.
Three other countries also want to join the club: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia. With these in mind, Rasmussen also urged the Vilnius delegates “to reaffirm their strong political commitment to the Open Door policy and the Euro Atlantic perspective of the countries aspiring for NATO membership.” However he did not explicitly say they should be offered MAP – and these countries are under far less threat of attack, and therefore present far less risk, than Georgia.
The answer which has nothing to do with the question
If the Georgian Foreign Minister is making these promises, when there is no apparent basis for doing so, she is either trying to get herself sacked or has been given inside information that the usual rules will be disregarded. Organisations like NATO don’t exist for very long if they don’t obey their own rules, as their own members soon cease to trust them even if they themselves don’t agree with the rules. So this inside information must have come from someone big enough not to be harmed by any damage this action might do to NATO.
In an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal published on June 1 Georgia’s State Minister Alex Petriashvili urged readers, “To Halt Putin, Bring Georgia Closer to NATO”. Although the disclaimer on the article reads, “The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of the Georgian government,” you don’t get such articles in the Wall Street Journal unless you are regarded as speaking with some authority on your subject and with approval from outsiders.
Petriashvili states directly, in somewhat surprising language for a government minister with a diplomatic portfolio, that Georgia joining NATO would prevent Russia “meddling” in Ukraine. He maintains that Georgia meets all NATO membership criteria, without explaining how it now meets the ones it has always been held not to meet, and says that to achieve its own ends “NATO must take a new look at Georgia.”
Petriashvili does not mention that throughout the civil unrest in Ukraine US and EU representatives continually made statements designed to support one particular side while the Russian envoy did not say a word. But despite this odd definition of the meddling which has to be stopped, Petriashvili insists that this is what NATO is actually for, not ensuring the defence of its members, of which Ukraine is not one, against external threats.
NATO cannot come right out and say that it wants to forget about its stated aims and prop up the US-organised, armed and funded coup against the Ukrainian government. It can’t say that because doing such things is not why any of its members joined it, even the US. They want military and political guarantees, not greater risk, and defence, not aggression which imperils them even further. Ask a Bulgarian, Pole or Romanian.
So NATO couches its new aspirations in terms of helping its poor, underprivileged brethren outside its current boundaries. It is trying to show the world how magnanimous it is by saying it wants to accept even the unlikeliest candidates for more than purely political reasons. The fact that they have the same enemy the US has in Ukraine is a convenient coincidence.
The cat in the bag
NATO has no real intention of fighting Russia, as the 2008 Georgia-Russia war showed. It will not put itself in a position where it has to defend Georgia, but has a reason for intimating it will.
NATO’s political aspirations now completely contradict its military ones. NATO has allowed this situation to build up for many years. Now its leadership is challenging its member states: choose the military NATO you were offered, or the new political NATO, before the inherent contradiction between the aims and resource implications of each leaves you with neither.
While its member states decide whether they want a military or political union Georgia will be left with no way of joining either side, as it does not fully meet either NATO’s military or political criteria. Its current claims are based on its virtues in both areas, taken together, forgiving the faults it has in each individual area. If the other members have to accept it in this condition, it will soon become an embarrassment to all.
Whichever side wins the battle for the heart and soul of NATO, Georgia gives it a public cause to champion and a private way out. The country which has donated the blood of so many of its citizens for causes few understand is now being asked to give its own. But promises will keep the present Georgian government in power, and that is a language much easier to understand.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.