The South Caucasus: United, and Divided, by NATO

Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have different hopes for the Atlantic Alliance.

Amidst the disputes that arose over the efficiency of the missile defense system, Montenegro’s accession to NATO and Russia’s new military build-up, the new engagements of the South Caucasus states with NATO that are seemingly underway were somewhat overshadowed.

Three rather interesting moves, linking NATO even more closely with the region, could lead to changing realities in the wider Black Sea region and inherently provoke Russia to be even more belligerent.

Georgia recently held joint NATO-Georgian military drills with substantial numbers of U.S. and UK troops in attendance, called “Noble Partner 2016,” at its Vaziani base, in addition to the first NATO-Georgia field exercises at the Joint Training and Evaluation Center at the Norio training camp. Such programs are running in compliance with the substantive package approved for Georgia at the NATO summit in Newport in 2014, and are aimed at enhancing Georgia’s territorial self-defense capabilities.

In the wake of the recent military escalation with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenia is about to enter a new stage of partnership with NATO. This initiative entails enhancement of the bilateral defense cooperation through considerable renewal of the Planning and Review Process (PARP), part of the Partnership for Peace program adopted by Yerevan since 1994. Likewise Georgia’s Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, while holding talks with her Azeri counterpart Zakir Hasanov, invited Azerbaijan to take part in military exercises under the auspices of NATO, to be scheduled by spring 2017.

Although such a sequence of military-political developments might at first glance seem insignificant, it could nevertheless have a decisive impact on regional dynamics in the medium term by providing an additional means of making NATO more visible in the South Caucasus. Setting aside Georgia’s traditional endeavors to become a military-political pillar for the West in the South Caucasus, there are two other complex states, Armenia and Azerbaijan, that are increasing their partnerships with the Euro-Atlantic Alliance.

As for Georgia, although its chances of receiving NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) are negligible in the short term, Georgian authorities nonetheless pin their hopes on at least enlarging the Substantial Package that was approved for Georgia at the Newport NATO Summit. The measures derived from the Substantial Package are proven to have boosted the interoperability and defensibility of the Georgian Armed Forces. However, policymakers in Tbilisi, as NATO Special Representative for the region James Appathurai recently mentioned, are too much focused on acquiring the MAP rather than promoting the practical mechanisms to prepare for NATO membership. This idea was underscored by the U.S. envoy to NATO, Douglas Lute, speaking in London to the Aspen Security Forum on April 22, when he stressed that there is no room for NATO enlargement in the foreseeable future. Despite all the efforts that Georgia makes in seeking to join NATO, including its remarkable contribution in Afghanistan, nonetheless, at its core, Georgia is a security consumer that requires protection against Russia. This factor effectively determines the NATO mainstream’s reluctance to let Georgia enter the alliance. In particular, it is pointing out that such a prospect is likely to cause NATO-Russia relations to deteriorate even further, thus providing a pretext for new Russian aggression against Georgia.

The central reason, however, is not to aggravate the situation by irritating Russia further; the Georgian side is of the opinion that the delay in granting the MAP to Tbilisi and inviting the state to be covered by the alliance’s security umbrella is emboldening Russia to intervene. In other words, Georgia’s position on the issue is that while NATO seeks to avoid fueling confrontation with Moscow, by its refusal to accept Georgia it amplifies the threat to Tbilisi. It is thereby unwillingly laying the groundwork for Russian aggression, aimed at retaliation against NATO.

Simultaneously, Tbilisi, in the framework of the ongoing Noble Partner military drills, has begun to permanently deploy NATO Response Force (NRF) units on its territory. Georgia is the fourth non–NATO member state to participate in the NRF, having joined in September 2015, after Sweden, Finland and Ukraine. By successfully carrying out a range of exercises, Alpha Company of the Twelfth Infantry Battalion, Fourth Mechanized Brigade of the Georgian Armed Forces can now be used by NATO in its rapid international operations. Though the given unit is made up of Georgian personnel, it is nonetheless now an official NATO element that henceforth will be stationed at the Vaziani military base. It will become something of an embodiment of NATO’s military presence in Georgia. This move will likely contribute to Georgia’s security boost—not to mention that Tbilisi would prefer to retain the recently arrived American units. Such a pursuit is not only about state security, but even a temporary U.S. military presence in Georgia is considered a kind of compensation for Georgia’s prolonged invitation to NATO. Meanwhile, the U.S. troops on the ground, even temporarily, are a containing factor for Russia’s potential activity.

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