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Roundtable: Interpreting Georgia’s ‘New Level’ Of Defense Cooperation

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According to Georgia’s leadership, the defense ties between Washington and Tbilisi are poised to jump to the “next level.” Evolutsia.Net’s roundtable explores what this really means.

Multiple figures in Georgian President Mikheil Saakashili’s government, including Saakashvili himself, have pointed to enhanced U.S.-Georgia defense cooperation as being a major consequence of last week’s White House meeting. To explore the issue, Evolutsia.Net has convened a roundtable to discuss the possible practical implications of this “new level” of defense cooperation between Tbilisi and Washington.

Tornike Metreveli, Georgian Youth Atlantic Treaty Association:

Be it a reward for Georgia’s WTO compromise and ISAF contributions or an encouragement for holding ‘free and fair elections’ later this year, enhanced U.S.-Georgian defense cooperation might have several practical implications. Reflecting on official positions, in addition to a tense international geopolitical climate, one can speculate about the three possible developments — optimistic, realistic and pessimistic — of how an enhanced U.S.-Georgian defense cooperation would look.

On the one hand, this ‘new level of cooperation’ sends an important message to Moscow which can be interpreted as follows: firstly, American administration is still interested in this region despite the Kremlin’s attempts to protect its regional hegemony, hinder ‘westernization’ and stop NATO expansion by all means. Consequently, the message is that modernization of Georgia’s defensive capabilities and strengthening economic ties is on the U.S.’s strategic agenda. Secondly, the two states seem to be gradually achieving a certain level of harmony on strategic issues (i.e. regional security and energy transit routes; the importance of ISAF, etc. are in the common interests of the two states). Lastly, the upcoming NATO Chicago Summit can be another occasion where the implication of new level of US-Georgian cooperation can be tested in practice if Georgia makes an actual step forward towards NATO integration.

From more realistic point of view, the meeting had more symbolic meaning accounting for the 20 year anniversary of U.S.-Georgian relations (perhaps it also constituted a gesture of gratitude from the U.S. administration for Georgia’s WTO compromise with Russia). Realistically, a practical implication of this cooperation will be dependent on the factor of fair elections in Georgia. It is doubtful that Georgia will get any serious assistance from the U.S. until it passes its election-test successfully. The more democratic Georgia is for 2014, the higher are the chances that the military equipment withdrawn from Afghanistan can remain in this country (Georgia will be used as a transit route for transportation of the military equipment from Afghanistan).

Lastly, keeping the recent Iranian crisis in mind and the risks which the regime in Tehran might pose to America, a more pessimistic observer might speculate that the deployment of American anti-missile defense systems in Georgia could have been a key source of agreement and enhanced defense cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia. But if one recalls Vladimir Putin’s rebuke about the risks over the hypothetical deployment of American defense system in Georgia, who hinted at offensive military options if such a system were to be installed, Georgia cannot afford to accept the deployment of such systems given its vulnerable position.

Tornike Metreveli is a member of the Georgian Youth Atlantic Treaty Association and a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh.

Nicholas Clayton, Kanal PIK and Three Kings Blog:

While we know very little about what was agreed upon between Georgian and American officials during Mikheil Saakashvili’s recent trip to Washington, I think it is clear that whatever comes out of this “new level” of cooperation will be maximum appearance and minimum substance. Both sides are motivated for domestic political reasons to make it look like the U.S.-Georgian military bond is growing tighter. The Georgia lobby in Washington remains surprisingly strong and Saakashvili needs to bring home the bacon in an election year. Furthermore, the U.S. needs to show that countries that give significant contributions to NATO operations — which Georgia most certainly has — will be rewarded in turn.

However, although Saakashvili said after the meeting, “I got what I wanted,” he didn’t. All indications are that the prospect of renewed U.S.-Georgian arms sales, which Obama overruled in December, is just as far off as it was before. Georgian Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia said after a meeting with his American counterpart Leon Panetta that the “new level” of cooperation would focus on improving Georgia’s “self-defense capabilities” and announced that American specialists would be arriving in Georgia for an intensified training program. While this will no doubt be of use to the Georgian armed forces, training alone will do very little to bridge the massive firepower gap between the Georgian army and Russian forces based in the region. In the event of renewed conflict, unless Georgian troops intend to go guerrilla from day one, there are few recipes for success for ground forces against an enemy that has air superiority in conventional warfare. On the other hand, enhanced training for Georgian troops does indeed serve NATO’s purposes should it call for Georgian contributions to its missions abroad in the future.

Nicholas Clayton is a senior editor at Kanal PIK. He blogs at Three Kings.

Michael Cecire, Evolutsia.Net:

Despite optimistic statements from Georgian officials and their allies in the media, it remains unclear exactly how this “new level” of defense cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia will manifest. By all accounts, the view from Washington is that defense ties between the two countries will continue on its modestly upwards trajectory since taking a plunge following the August 2008 war while Tbilisi hails a “new level” of relations after every semi-major in-person meeting. This isn’t to say the Georgian government is lying; their words may be somewhat misleading in its hyperbole, but there is no question that the Obama administration has taken a gradually warmer view of the small Caucasian republic over the course of the administration, though the White House may come to regret handing such a major media coup to the Georgian government if Georgia fails to demonstrate increased maturity with its parliamentary elections later this year.

In spite of the constant pleas from Tbilisi to renew arms sales, it remains unlikely that Washington will move their defense assistance to Georgia in a procurement-oriented direction — and perhaps rightly so. While Georgia’s military is somewhat handicapped by its limited inventory, the restarting of arms sales from the U.S. is unlikely to do much to change that dynamic, given that Georgia never owned U.S. arms in any great quantity. And as the 2008 war thoroughly demonstrated, Georgia was mostly unable to mobilize the assets it did have to mount anything approaching an effective defense. With the exception of isolated heroics, Georgia’s territorial defense strategy of the country was nothing short of anemic and plagued by mismanagement and command & control (C2) breakdowns — not the absence of a specific weapons platform. While greater contest of its airspace and territorial waters might have mitigated Georgia’s runaway C2 issues somewhat, these are not even the kind of purchases that Tbilisi is seeking from Washington, anyway.

The U.S. emphasis on “brains over brawn” is not only smart diplomacy, but also militarily wise. Until Georgia can demonstrate that it has the kind of functioning C2 mechanisms in place that would allow it to mount a halfway effective defense, increased arms sales — from the U.S. or elsewhere — would be militarily useless and largely a waste of money (much of it probably coming from U.S. or Europe-derived aid packages), anyway. At best, it would be a symbolic gesture.

However, if the Georgian government is more interested in symbols — a pattern that has generally typified its approach to state building — then Tbilisi may very well have, from its point of view, won some major concessions from Washington. Rather than acquiring specific military hardware, the U.S. has indicated that it would be willing to intensify and upgrade its training programs to Georgian troops. While this almost certainly means a major upgrade for the Georgian military, Tbilisi may be focusing on the part of the arrangement that will put more American boots on the ground. A larger training presence will mean a larger U.S. military footprint in Georgia which, while being of virtually no utility to the country’s actual territorial defense, matters greatly to Georgia’s military and especially political leadership.

Michael Cecire is the publisher of Evolutsia.Net and a contributing analyst with Wikistrat.

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Evolutsia

Evolutsia.Net a news and analysis blogozine covering the political landscape of Georgia republic. Evolutsia.Net aims to provide the public with an objective and international perspective on Georgia’s work-in-progress transition to a modern, pluralistic democracy. Evolutsia.Net is led by three independent analysts with experience in and pertaining to Georgia. Evolutsia.Net has no political affiliations and endeavors to provide information and analysis without bias or prejudice.

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