Should NATO Open Its Doors to Georgia?

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The 2008 NATO summit in Romania was central to many of geopolitical disputes that have plagued Georgia since its independence over three decades ago.

George W. Bush was attending the final NATO summit of his term before he resigned. He arrived in Bucharest determined to push his fellow leaders towards Georgia’s acceptance. Georgia has been pursuing closer relations with Europe and America since the fall of the Soviet Union. It served as a crucial ally for the U.S. during Bush’s early wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. They contributed hundreds of soldiers to the efforts and let the U.S. use their airstrips. Let’s make it official!

Opposition leaders were French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel of Germany. They warned that inviting Georgia to NATO membership or suggesting it as the long-term strategy of the alliance would only encourage Russian aggression. And Georgia’s location—next to Russia, in the Caucasus, outside the existing NATO borders—created a major vulnerability for the rest of the alliance, with little to be gained from the addition.

Bush won Bucharest. It didn’t take Merkel or Sarkozy long to prove their point.

The Russian government declared plans to support pro-Russian militias in Georgia just hours after NATO’s Bucharest Summit Declaration was published.

The Russian tanks that had rolled over the border to stop a Georgian offensive against emboldened militias four months later. In less than two weeks, the war was over. However, it resulted in 20,000 Georgians being forced from their homes by South Ossetia (a breakaway region with large Russian-speaking populations) and Abkhazia (a province with large numbers of Georgians). These two regions remain de facto Russian controlled, even though they are claimed by the Georgian government more than a decade after their independence.

Now the Biden administration is once again suggesting that Georgia could join NATO—with a few important caveats.

When asked about the state of the ex-Soviet country, Antony Blinken decided to leave the door open. NATO shouldn’t deny the possibility of membership to a country such as Georgia if they can meet all requirements and contribute to collective security.

“If you are successful,” interjected Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.”Then we will be at War with Russia Now,” he said.

Since Georgia separated from the collapsed Soviet Union in 1991, conflicts with Russia have been a pervasive threat. The Georgian government long seeks ties to the European Union (E.U.). and NATO—and recent surveys show that a majority of the Georgian people favor closer economic and military integration with both entities. Georgia, its largest trading partner, has signed a free trade accord with the E.U. since 2017 and Georgian passport holders are allowed to travel freely into Europe without requiring a visa.

Even though European institutions have been more open to Georgia, European leaders are still wary about extending an official military alliance towards the Black Sea’s Eastern Edge. Merkel stated that “I don’t think Georgia will become a NATO member anytime soon” during her 2018 diplomatic visit to Tbilisi.

NATO does not oppose expanding. In fact, since the Cold War’s end 14 states were made full members. That includes former parts of the Soviet Union—the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—and former East bloc countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

Georgian proponents argue that the U.S. already has an agreement to help Georgia in its national security. The Congressional Research Service reports that the U.S. has given Georgia more than $200m in military support since 2010 when it signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership with Georgia. It also sold 400 anti-tank weapons to Georgia.

In a 2018 briefing, Ana Andguladze and Amanda Paul, both researchers from the European Policy Centre, argued that Georgia should be admitted to NATO as full members.

Security gains may be possible. Blinken responded to Paul’s claim at the January hearing that NATO membership for Georgia would trigger hostilities with Russia by extending it. He said, “I believe the exact opposite.” “We have all seen that NATO member countries have not been the same targets of Russian aggression,” he said.

This is the “chicken-or egg” problem that has been at the heart of NATO expansion since the post-Soviet period. Russia has shown more aggression toward Ukraine and Georgia, than toward other countries, such as the Baltic states, which share a border with Russia. NATO membership is it a way to deter Russian aggression? Are Russian actions against Ukraine and Georgia natural responses to NATO’s acceptance of the Baltic countries and an attempt by Russia to keep the alliance from further expanding its boundaries?

Yet, legitimate questions should still be raised about NATO’s potential benefits from expanding. All members are required to work together for collective defense. An attack on one member is considered an attack on all. Geopolitical stability is the goal. However, leaders from France and Germany may be right to ask whether it is worth taking on the responsibility to defend Georgia and whether their citizens are safer.

“Extending a security commitment to…Georgia would extend NATO requirements beyond any degree of realism,” Henrik Larsen, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies, wrote in a June op-ed for the foreign policy blog War on the Rocks.

NATO finds itself in an impossible position due to NATO’s inability make significant security commitments towards Georgia and Ukraine. Removing the Bucharest Summit Declaration will be a strategic retreat, which would admit de facto Russian control over other countries aligned to Europe or the United States. Larsen explained that NATO should not continue to fulfill its promises of 2008, as it would be “exposing enlargement in a huge bluff which would destroy NATO’s credibility in any theater.”

Georgia has for years existed in a sort of gray zone within the former Soviet realm—with a government that is firmly anti-Russian but cursed by geography to remain tethered in Russia’s orbit. The Biden administration seems to be more in control of the situation than Paul and Blinken’s January exchange would suggest.

Blinken explained that Georgia does not currently have the ability to fulfill “the requirements for membership” because NATO considers ongoing territorial conflicts a significant obstacle in granting membership. Georgia won’t be joining NATO, unless Russia and Georgia agree to relinquish their territorial claims in South Ossetia.

This brings us back to 2008’s events. We can see more clearly the Russian attempts to inflame a conflict at Georgia’s border, despite knowing NATO had been considering offering Georgia membership. It may have worked, and Russia copied it in Ukraine in 2014.

NATO is not a strong alliance and Russia cannot respond to NATO’s strategic moves. Sometimes, you have to do what your geopolitical enemy doesn’t want.

The benefits should outweigh any costs. If the price of backing Georgia’s membership in NATO is stressing American relationships in Europe and heightening the risk of war with a nuclear-armed opponent, the Biden administration should be in no rush to change the—admittedly imperfect and awkward—status quo.