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Georgia's Complex Relationship with NATO

  • NATO leaders will focus on enhancing Ukraine's defense capabilities against Russia while also addressing security concerns in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
  • Georgia's recent alignment with Moscow has raised concerns within NATO, prompting calls for Tbilisi to reconsider its policies.
  • Armenia seeks to strengthen its partnership with NATO amid growing tensions with Russia and Azerbaijan.

A NATO summit will convene July 9 in Washington with the main objective being enhancing Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russian aggression. But an ancillary aim for the Atlantic Alliance will be strengthening relationships with states in the Caucasus and Central Asia in the hopes of crimping Russia’s ability to wage war. 

During three days of meetings, NATO leaders will strive to put a comprehensive system in place to build Kyiv’s war-fighting capacity. At the same time, they intend to pay attention to Russia’s southern flank, which has emerged since the start of the war as a key trade conduit for the Kremlin. 

Representatives from more than 40 organizations and non-member states, including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and others that interact with NATO through its Partnership for Peace program, will participate in some summit sessions. Georgia is a country of particular concern for the Atlantic Alliance. 

The Georgian Dream-dominated government in Tbilisi has taken a sharp right turn in recent years, souring relations with Western political and security institutions, including the European Union and NATO. Atlantic Alliance officials are determined to send a strong signal to the Georgian government. “We’re asking the government to reconsider its positions,” Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien said ahead of the summit. 

Among the sources of Western displeasure with Georgia is passage of a Moscow-influenced “foreign agents” law and a series of violent attacks on its critics. Tbilisi also awarded a major contract to build a Black Sea port at Anaklia to a Chinese consortium. 

“All of these things are incompatible with wanting to join the US and EU-based international organizations,” O’Brien said. He compared the membership bid to a game of football (soccer): Those who join the European Football Championship follow “the rules of the club.” This year, Georgia’s national football team qualified for the Euro 2024 finals, making it to the knockout round before losing to Spain. 

Responding to Tbilisi’s decisions, the United States launched a comprehensive review of bilateral cooperation, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced visa restrictions for those “undermining democracy.” 

Meanwhile, as authorities in Tbilisi drift away from the West, public opinion remains firmly in favor of EU and NATO membership. A 2023 poll by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute found that 73 percent of Georgians still support NATO membership. 

The alliance last held a joint brigade-level exercise with Georgia in March 2022. The 2023 Vilnius summit introduced new cooperation initiatives on cybersecurity and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense. In October 2023, Tbilisi made its debut as an operational partner in NATO’s maritime Operation Sea Guardian. This year, it participated in the Sea Breeze 24 exercises in Scotland together with the Ukrainian Navy. 

In Washington, the Georgian delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili. Ahead of his trip, he hailed the US as a “strategic partner” and said he looked forward to strengthening cooperation. At the summit, Darchiashvili will participate in working sessions and “hold bilateral meetings,” the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

According to Alexander Vinnikov, who heads NATO’s liaison office in Georgia, no specific format for interaction was planned for the summit. Ahead of the event, the US message to Tbilisi remained firm. “We’re trying to be as clear as we can that there is a way to step back from the path that they have chosen,” O’Brien said

Another Caucasus state, Armenia, hopes to obtain an Individually Tailored Partnership Programme with NATO, an update of the 2005 Individual Partnership Action Plan. Similar action plans have been agreed with Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Moldova, with Tbilisi taking the lead in 2004. 

Armenia, unlike Georgia, has sought to bolster its relations with Western institutions over the past year, following the country’s decisive defeat at the hands of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh and the sharp deterioration of Yerevan’s relations with Russia. 

The Washington summit will mark the 75th anniversary of the alliance’s founding. With Sweden and Finland now among the 32 member states, nearly 75 percent of whom spending at or near 2 percent of GDP on defense, the alliance is demonstrating continuing resolve to support Ukraine’s war effort. 

“I’m an optimist,” outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists. “I expect that regardless of the shifting political winds … NATO will remain a stable and strong force in an uncertain time.”

By Ekaterina Venkina via Eurasianet.org

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