In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of the country of Georgia in 2008, NATO announced its intention to see Georgia admitted into the alliance. Despite this vocal commitment, it took until 2016 for the first military exercises to be conducted between Georgia and NATO members.
Interest in the issue has been reignited due to the beginning of a new joint exercise inspiringly called “NATO-Georgia Exercise 2019,” which began on March 18 and is scheduled to end on Friday.
The NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was in Tbilisi on Monday to meet with Georgian officials during the exercises. In a press conference with Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, Stoltenberg reaffirmed NATO’s commitment to its so-called “open door policy,” which states that any country has the right to seek NATO membership if it so desires.
“It is the NATO principle that each nation has the sovereign right to make its own decisions. Each nation has the right to choose its future,” Stoltenberg said, insisting that Georgia will join NATO. “When we are ready, Georgia will become a NATO member and only NATO and Georgia and no third country will make the decision.”
The other country to which Stoltenberg referred to is, of course, Russia, which since the invasion in 2008 has maintained a military presence in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Herein lies the reason why Georgian membership into NATO has been so delayed: while sympathetic to the Georgian cause, NATO members are concerned about admitting Georgia to the alliance. This is because under Article 5 of NATO, they would be obligated to go to war with Russia if it attacked Georgia.
Article 5 is the policy of collective action, which means that an attack on one member state is to be interpreted as an attack on all.
Consequently, Stoltenberg’s assurances, while provocative in nature, ultimately seem empty. It is possible that the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 may have changed the calculus of NATO member states when it comes to Georgian admittance into the alliance.
Stoltenberg himself made this point, stating that, “We must be aware of what we see: the substantial militarization of the Black Sea region by Russia, especially after the illegal annexation of Crimea. We also saw Russia’s aggressive actions against the Ukrainian ships near the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.”
Five years removed from the annexation of Crimea, however, Georgia seems no closer to joining NATO than it was in 2008. For Georgia, this is undoubtedly an issue of great interest and importance. In its current state, Georgia is entirely at the mercy of its colossal northern neighbor. Joining NATO would certainly allay its fears of another Russian invasion.
The Baltic States were in a similarly vulnerable position as Georgia was after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but these other states were able to secure their borders when they joined NATO in 2004. Why shouldn’t Georgia be able to do the same?
The reality of the situation is that NATO today is in a very different position than it was in 2004. I believe the alliance is comparatively weaker than it was in the early 2000s due to the reemergence of Russia as a military power and the recent decline in enthusiasm in Washington for sustaining the alliance.
NATO’s rapid expansion after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has left the alliance overextended. The admittance of the Baltic States in 2004, for example, is now regarded by many as a strategic blunder due to the vulnerability of these states.
U.S. wargames conducted in 2016 revealed should they choose to invade, Russian forces would be able to capture two Baltic capital cities in less than 60 hours.
In light of this evident vulnerability, NATO would be remiss not to reconsider its commitment to admitting Georgia, a state which is perhaps even more vulnerable to Russian aggression than the Baltic States due to its geographic isolation from other NATO member states, with the exception of Turkey.
Of course, one might argue that not granting Georgia membership plays right into Moscow’s hands. Afterall, NATO’s reluctance to admit Georgia is likely proof that Russia’s illegal occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has been a successful deterrent.
Moreover, should Georgia not be admitted — Russia will have incentive in the future to invade and partially occupy other countries which seek NATO membership.
NATO needs to pick its battles wisely. While it is regrettable that Georgia is stuck in a frozen conflict with Russia, this does not mean that NATO needs to intervene and spread its commitments out even thinner.
If the alliance wants to survive, it is going to need to consolidate its power first, like by getting all of its member states to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, before expanding elsewhere.