Obama Tells Georgia to Forget About NATO After Encouraging It to Join

The president said Tbilisi isn’t “currently on a path” to membership in the military alliance after telling the vulnerable country for months to do it.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

TBILISI, Georgia —When President Barack Obama delivered the message in Brussels Wednesday that neither Ukraine nor Georgia “are currently on a path to NATO membership” the news came as a shock and a disappointment to Georgians, though a rather familiar one.

Since Russia first occupied Crimea last month, Georgian officials have been encouraged by Congress, the State Department and NATO leadership to further integrate with NATO. John Kerry announced further U.S. assistance “to help support Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic vision” and expressed his hope that Georgia would sign a partnership agreement with NATO this year. These sentiments were expressed personally to Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili during his trip to Washington, D.C. last month.

Then on March 12, Russia’s Kommersant quoted an undisclosed source in the State Department saying, “If Russia announces annexation of Crimea the issue of granting Georgia a MAP (membership action plan) can be considered virtually a foregone conclusion.”

Georgia once again has been left exposed to Russian wrath for declaring its NATO ambitions, only to have them rejected publically and abruptly by the U.S. Commander-in-Chief. This isn’t the first time. For more than a decade the U.S. has been sending positive signals to Tbilisi, when Georgian support for NATO is to the U.S.’s advantage—and just as quickly the U.S. revokes the invitation when it is no longer geopolitically convenient. The patience and resolve of the Georgian people to continue pursuing the alliance is frankly remarkable. Yet at the current rate, the US may soon find itself without a staunch ally in the South Caucasus and without access to Georgia’s strategic corridor, which together with Azerbaijan connects the Caspian Sea and its oil reserves to the Black Sea and Europe.

Perhaps what the U.S. has failed to appreciate is that the Georgian government which democratically and peacefully—to the credit of both regimes—succeeded power from former President Mikheil Saakashvili in October 2012 intended to take a neutral stance with Russia and to mend relations with its northern neighbor while continuing on a pro-Western course. This was no easy task but the Georgian government had managed to significantly improve relations with Russia and resume trade for the first time in seven years, even while Russia continued to occupy one-fifth of Georgia’s territory. Then Ukraine happened. When Russia invaded Crimea, the Georgian government took a stand against Russia and joined the West in condemning the invasion and then annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. The events were an eerie reminder of Georgia’s own 2008 invasion by Russia.

With U.S. and EU support and encouragement, the current Georgian government’s neutral and reconciliatory stance with Russia went out the window. Both the Georgian president and the speaker of parliament demanded that Georgia be swiftly integrated into the NATO alliance. Then on February 25, the Georgian prime minister stood before the Atlantic Council in D.C. and said the following:

“Six years ago at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, the Allies decided that Georgia would become a member. In Chicago, the Alliance underlined the importance of holding free and fair Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in Georgia. The progress already made, puts us in a strong position to take next step forward in Georgia’s NATO integration. For Georgia, the upcoming NATO summit in UK is the best opportunity to adequately reflect the progress made, particularly when the time has rightly matured for it. It is essential to move forward and the realistic way to do it is to grant Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia. We stress on MAP as it is a single integration mechanism providing concrete framework for the implementation of the Bucharest summit decision that Georgia should become member of NATO.”

The Prime Minister acknowledged that in the lead up to the signing of the EU Association Agreement and the NATO Summit in September that there would be intense pressure on his country especially considering the events in the Ukraine. Few would have guessed that it wouldn’t be the Georgians but the American government that would cave to Russian pressure.

To make matters even more complicated, the Obama made the statement denying Georgia’s “path to NATO” the day before former President Saakashvili is due to appear back in Georgia for questioning in 10 separate legal cases. Saakashvili has refused to return stating that the investigation is politically motivated. In a statement on March 24, the State Department expressed a similar concern that “launching multiple simultaneous investigations involving a former President raises legitimate concerns about political retribution.” Earlier today a group of Georgian NGOs also released a joint statement expressing a number of concerns including the timing of the investigations being before local elections. The group stated:

“Against of backdrop of announcements by the EU leaders about speeding up of signing of the Association Agreement with Georgia on the one hand, and statements on new approaches towards NATO enlargement on the other hand, it is important that summoning of the former president not to be perceived by Georgia’s strategic partners as politically motivated action and this case not to have negative effect on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration process.”

The timing of Obama’s comments will of course fuel speculation that this is exactly the case.

Whatever the reason behind all this folly, the Georgian people have earned their right to some form of protection by the West. One can only hope that by the time that protection arrives they haven’t decided that it is the West that they need protection from.

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An even further complication is this: Obama’s statement yesterday may be a prudent decision but it was disastrously executed as we have seen so often with Obama’s foreign policy in this region. This correspondent was and is still against the MAP (Membership Action Plan) process because it inherently would make Georgia more vulnerable and make it a target especially as it was floated as a kind of punitive measure for Russia’s actions in Crimea.

MAP has been over-politicized by the Georgian government (past and current), the US government and especially by the Russians (who see MAP as a direct form of aggression). The MAP process has its own connotations in Georgian culture as a kind of merit badge of Western acceptance. For years the status was dangled as a kind of carrot before Georgia to enact democratic reforms and also as an incentive for military and geopolitical collaboration with the West in the interest of the West.

Yet all parties must acknowledge that the MAP offers Georgia no immediate protection by NATO allies. It is simply an official pathway to join the alliance. No party will be more aware of this fact than Russia and if a MAP is issued to Georgia only to punish Russia, rather than in support of Georgia, then Georgia would become all the more of a target for the sort of Russian aggression we are witnessing in Ukraine—not unlike what happened to Georgia in 2008.

If the US wants to bring Georgia into the Alliance they need to use an alternative route than MAP (MAP is not officially required in the NATO framework) which instantly applies Article 5 (which means if one member is attacked they all are) during the integration process. In the transition period of joining NATO, a country like Georgia would be more vulnerable to Russian invasion especially in the current environment. I realize a country cannot instantly be given NATO status but if NATO wants to protect Georgia it should immediately create an Article 5 status for Georgia, which would lead to official membership when the country’s military, bureaucracy, legal framework, et cetra is fully integrated to NATO standards.

Yesterday I was under the assumption that it would be better to not bring Georgia into NATO than give it a MAP, which would make it a target and make Georgia pay for the West’s inability to create tough sanctions. Today after the way Obama handled the issue, I’m not so sure. Georgia and Ukraine are today at more risk because the Russians see that comment as weakness and concession. This morning the Georgian Prime Minister acknowledged Obama’s comments as “what is now a reality in the world, because many things are being changed in the world and things do not happen so simply in a day.” Indeed it is a sad reality that Obama has set forth.

Whatever the case, the way Obama handled this turned what could have been a pragmatic decision into a statement of reduced support for Georgia and Ukraine right when Russian troops are at both countries’ borders.