NATO’s strategy towards Georgia after the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict has been following two key objectives: to intensify relations with Georgia to keep the country on the reform track but to prevent it from joining the alliance in order not to irritate Russia. These somewhat contradictory goals are perhaps the result of complex bargaining between supporters and opponents of NATO’s further enlargement, and hardliners and soft-liners in terms of the alliance’s Russia policy. Therefore, to understand NATO’s conceptual ambiguity towards Georgia, we first need to put it into the context of a broader discussion about the future of NATO and its relations with Russia. In academic and policy-relevant discussions about the further enlargement of NATO in the post-socialist area, two opposite opinions have been dominant from the beginning. NATO pessimists, who include the realist International Relations thinkers in the USA and the EU, have been repeating the argument put forward by the Kremlin and the Russian establishment that NATO’s eastern enlargement has been a tragic mistake and instead the West should have tried to accommodate Russia by accepting the post-Soviet area (and previously also Eastern Europe) as the Kremlin’s sphere of influence or as a buffer space between the West and Russia. According to this view, the West was primarily responsible for the crisis with Russia since it disregarded Russia’s legitimate security concerns and tried to intrude into Russia’s sphere of interest. The NATO pessimists view international politics in an old-fashioned manner when might makes right. They barely believe in the right of self-determination of smaller states, and criticise the West for its flawed (read, liberal) view of international politics. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are NATO optimists – a wide array of liberal (but also realist or more pragmatic) policy practitioners, scholars and experts who think that NATO’s open-door policy and deterrence (or the democratic transformation) of Russia is still in the West’s interests. NATO optimists believe in a vision of Europe that is whole and free but also in need of a tougher policy towards Russia.
The West’s policy towards Georgia’s eventual NATO membership after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war manoeuvred between these two extremes: NATO froze the process of Georgia becoming a member but did not entirely abandon the country. In 2017, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the current stalemate as strategic patience. After the last NATO summit, in his usual brutally honest way, the US President Donald Trump explained what NATO means by strategic patience: “at a certain point [Georgia] will have a chance [to join NATO]. Not right now.” However, the tacit acceptance of Russian concerns by the West, by postponing Georgia’s (and Ukraine’s) NATO membership indefinitely has been balanced by intensified relations outside the membership context. As a matter of fact, since 2008 the relations between NATO and Georgia have only intensified and encompassed many areas. In 2015 NATO and Georgia signed the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP), which includes assistance in 13 areas of defence and security-related sectors. As a part of the package, in 2015 NATO opened a NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC) in Georgia designed to train Georgian and NATO troops as well as troops from other partner countries. In 2016, Georgia became NATO's Enhanced Opportunities Partner country – a status that provides “all of the privileges that alliance members receive except for the collective security umbrella.”
However, those tiny carrots cannot replace the golden carrot of the Membership Action Plan (MAP), a key stage that will eventually be followed by actual membership. Indefinite postponement of granting Georgia MAP status has negatively affected the image of the West in the Black Sea country and as a result the support for NATO membership has declined. The MAP became associated with empty promises in Georgian society and became a favourite topic among Eurosceptic and anti-West populist actors, citing the West’s inability to aid or its disinterest in their country. The Georgian government tried to sell the promise given during the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest that Georgia would become a NATO member one day as something “better than MAP”, a desperate attempt which also became a matter of irony in Georgian public opinion. What is more, intensified relations with NATO failed to improve Georgia’s national security. Although hypothetically NATO (i.e. the US) may certainly be preventing more aggressive actions from Russia, the overall national security of the Black Sea country is still in a very fragile situation, which transcends the conflict areas and contributes to overall instability in the country. In fact, and somewhat surprisingly, the main external security provider to Georgia is not NATO or the US but the EU, with its 200-person monitoring mission that oversaw the 2008 Russia-Georgia ceasefire and post-war situation. Hence, ten years after the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, as NATO membership is not in cards with Georgia at the moment the EU happens to be the only Western actor with (unarmed) boots on the ground.
Photo: Giorgi Rodionov
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)