Georgians live in a dangerous neighborhood. This is obvious to anyone looking at a map of the Caucasus.
Iran is its neighbor to the south. Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in a frozen conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh province in Azerbaijan. Even though Georgia has good relations with both countries, the instability coming from this conflict could have a spillover affect in the region.
Of course, Georgia’s northern neighbor Russia is its top foreign policy concern and its biggest security threat. After all, as pointed out on The Foundry yesterday, almost four years after it invaded Georgia in 2008, Russia continues to occupy 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory. Further complicating the regional security situation is the Russian troop presence in Armenia on Georgia’s southern border.
President Mikheil Saakashvili has handled Georgia’s difficult relations with Russia in a responsible, pragmatic manner. For example, knowing the benefits of the global economy, Georgia has also demonstrated a responsible approach with the recent deal clearing the way for Russian membership of the World Trade Organization.
Even though it is not yet a NATO member, Georgia has recently implemented major defense reforms to ensure it can operate effectively alongside NATO. Georgia will soon publish a comprehensive Strategic Defense Review that will focus on improving the country’s defensive capabilities. Georgia already spends around 4 percent of GDP on defense, a level of investment NATO members would do well to emulate: The NATO average is 1.6 percent.
While many NATO countries, such as France, are rushing for the door in Afghanistan, Georgia is committing more troops to the mission this year, doubling its contribution in Helmand Province. That will make Georgia the largest per capita troop-contributing nation in the International Security Assistance Force.
Yet this is not that surprising. In 2008, Georgia was the second largest troop contributor in Iraq, trailing only the U.S.
When it comes to defense, Georgia is a serious player. So what should the West be doing to encourage Georgia to continue along the track of reform?
The West should sell high-end defensive anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry to Georgia. So long as the weapons are defensive in nature, there is no reason not to provide them to the Georgian military. The Georgians must have been puzzled when they saw Libyan rebels—many of whom the West knew little about and some of whom have links to al-Qaeda—supplied with the latest anti-tank weaponry. This when the West will not sell the same defensive weapons to Tbilisi.
NATO should also live up to its promise of eventual Georgian membership. Some European countries are concerned that Georgia’s membership into NATO would trigger a war with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, Georgian officials say that they are happy to accept a NATO membership arrangement or compromise that excludes the two occupied territories from NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee until the matter is resolved peacefully with the Russians. After all, Georgia is not the aggressor in this situation.
Saakashvili has made a “non-use of force” pledge regarding the occupied territories, which Russia has failed to do. Saakashvili knows that there will not be a military solution to the occupation and is committed to peace in the region. Sadly, it appears that the same cannot be said of Russia.