U.S.-Georgian bilateral security and military arrangements could come not a moment too soon. This strategic partnership should remedy the security vacuum that the United States, NATO, and the European Union had, each in its own way, allowed to develop in the Black Sea-South Caucasus region during the last few years. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August and the West’s paralysis in the face of that event dramatized the security vacuum in a region critical to Western interests.
From Georgia’s perspective, “cooperation with our strategic partner is almost the only assurance of our security,” according to Batu Kutelia, hitherto First Deputy Defense Minister and now ambassador-designate to the United States (Rustavi-2 TV, December 17). The sentiment in Tbilisi, as columnist Eka Kvesitadze sums it up, is that “after we were left to face Russia one-on-one, a bilateral military agreement with the United States would be the only salvation for the country” (24 Saati, December 15).
Such comments reflect the country’s vulnerability and the psychological pressure on Georgian society after the forward-deployment of Russian forces in the annexed territories. The CFE Treaty, already made useless by Russia in the North and South Caucasus well before this war, has been dead beyond recall since August, leaving no constraint and no transparency regarding Russian deployments. This situation jeopardizes the whole set of Western interests that converge in the South Caucasus.
U.S. military assistance to Georgia must therefore be expected to include those basic capabilities for defensive operations that Georgia had lacked all along: respectable air defense, anti-tank and counter-artillery capabilities, command-control-communications equipment, intelligence systems, operational training for territorial defense, training of staff-level officers, and a system for reservist training and mobilization.
Russia’s invasion exposed all those gaps in Georgia’s defense system. They are traceable to the limited content of U.S. assistance programs in recent years, which focused on distant counterinsurgency missions while underestimating the potential threats of a conventional military nature.
The new U.S. program is expected to address those defense gaps. This would enable Georgia to raise the cost of another Russian attack to the extent of deterring it without necessitating the presence of U.S. forces, which in any case is not on the cards in the form of military bases. The lesson of August in Georgia (as in the Baltic states) underscores the need to rebalance the allocation of resources, which has tended to privilege expeditionary operations while sometimes short-changing homeland defense.
Moscow fell short of achieving its most ambitious political objectives through the invasion. It failed to undermine business and investor confidence in the energy transit corridor. Instead, business confidence has rebounded with plans to expand transit volumes. Moscow also failed to intimidate Azerbaijan. Instead, Azerbaijan has quietly strengthened its economic ties with Georgia and reaffirmed the Western orientation of its external and energy policies. Russia did hurt Georgia’s economy severely in the short term, but the European Union and United States have pledged some €5 billion ($7.3 billion) worth of reconstruction aid and other economic assistance. And as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has more than once remarked, Moscow failed in its basic goal to remove the democratically elected Georgian government (National Public Radio interview, December 11).
By occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however, Russia has concentrated its forces within easy striking distance of Georgia’s cities and international transport arteries. Russian troops are now positioned only 24 miles (40 kilometers) from Tbilisi at the closest point (Akhalgori heights).
Given its unfulfilled political objectives, Moscow may well consider the possibilities or opportunities for military action next spring, as Pavel Felgenhauer has suggested (Novaya Gazeta, December 8). The Georgian Defense Ministry is planning against such a contingency while the country remains strategically and tactically exposed in the short term. A well-timed U.S.-Georgian security agreement would tide Georgia over during this period of vulnerability, bolstering the reliability of the strategic South Caucasus corridor.
The incoming U.S. administration will undoubtedly consider the possibilities of further assistance to Georgia in civilian fields. Recommendations include encouraging investments in energy and transport infrastructure (convergent with possible EU incentives), broader access to the U.S. market for competitive Georgian products (ideally a free-trade agreement), and travel visa facilitation, along with travel restrictions for secessionists carrying Russian passports (Andrew Peek, “Rebuilding Georgia: A Look Beyond Foreign Aid,” Center for European Policy Analysis [Washington], December 15).