How Georgian NATO Membership Actually Serves Russian Interests

September 18, 2013

By Michael Hikari Cecire, Black Sea regional analyst and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

One of the perennial points of contention between Russia and the West is Georgia’s aspirations of Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership. Although Russia has taken a hard line against the prospect of Georgian accession to NATO, the Alliance has promised Tbilisi that it will happen eventually. While the West has taken Moscow’s strong opposition as an expression of its interests, it is actually more a statement of sentiment. Instead of being a setback for Russia’s bid for global leadership, a Georgia in NATO would actually be a net positive for Russian national interests.

With diplomatic wrangling in high gear over Syria’s civil war and chemical weapons use, reports have surfaced that Western negotiators had reportedly considered offering concessions over NATO expansion, among other things, to win Russian flexibility on the issue. Given that Russia’s objections to NATO expansion are only especially controversial in the case of its southern neighbor Georgia, with which it fought a brief war in 2008, the logical interpretation would seem to indicate that Georgia’s NATO aspirations could have been on the chopping block in exchange for a Syria deal. As it happened, the U.S. decided that this was no bargain. We may never know if this is something that Moscow would have seriously entertained, but it speaks to Washington’s acknowledgement of Russia’s vehement and longstanding opposition to NATO expansion in the South Caucasus.

According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, “The ongoing discussion of Georgia’s accession to NATO causes legitimate concerns for us, and political changes in Tbilisi do not give any reason for the softening of our position in this issue.” In a recent interview with Russia Direct Karasin said, “[A] NATO perspective would lead to increased tension in the South Caucasus and would have serious consequences for geopolitical stability in the region.”

But what if this isn’t the case? Questions over Georgia’s suitability for NATO membership have generally been answered by the purported advantages, directly or indirectly, that Tbilisi’s accession would offer to Euro-Atlantic security. In these calculations, Western interests are considered while Russian opposition is taken for granted. However, as Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli from the John Hopkins University Caucasus-Central Asia Institute points out, one of the greatest beneficiaries of Georgian NATO membership may be Russia itself.

“In reality, Georgia’s NATO membership will strengthen the security of Russia’s southern border and help stabilize the North Caucasus,” notes Tsereteli. “Unfortunately, Russia has not learned its lesson from the 1990s when it supported the separatist war in Abkhazia against the Georgian central government, which helped [destabilize and radicalize] the region.”

In many ways, the Georgia question has an unjustified prominence within Russian foreign policy thinking. In Moscow, the idea of Georgia has become something of a benchmark for Russian national greatness. Yet Georgia, scarcely larger than the state of South Carolina, is no bellwether for Russian power. Even if its leadership seems unable or unwilling to grasp it, Russia’s surest pathway to global leadership does not lie through Georgia or in collecting a Eurasian menagerie of buffer states and proxies. Instead, Russian power will come from being a meaningful player in the Asia-Pacific, by better capitalizing on the rich resource-potential of the Far East and the Arctic, and by demonstrating itself as a contributor to a rules-based international order. Should Georgia join NATO, perhaps its “loss” will allow Russia to direct its considerable energies towards these far more productive ventures.

The most obvious reason that Russian interests are rarely considered when weighing the merits of Georgian NATO membership is because Russia’s leadership, as Karasin so eloquently underscores, has insisted that it is a threat to Russia. But realistically, the evidence does not support this assertion. On the contrary, a Georgia within NATO would be a more proactive and responsive partner, which could only benefit a region that has been historically starved of stability. As Tsereteli notes, Russia’s interests in the North Caucasus would be especially served. Today, what fragile stability the North Caucasus does have is glaringly dependent on the whims of local power structures that provide, at very best, mixed results.

While Georgia’s current government has taken great pains to normalize relations with Russia, Tbilisi has little incentive to proactively cooperate with Moscow on policing their shared border. Georgian authorities tend to see North Caucasus unrest as an exclusively Russian problem and not a priority area for a country with plenty of challenges of its own. Much of the border is only intermittently accessible, winding through the remote crags and passes of the greater Caucasus Mountains; why devote limited resources to the security problems of an adversary?

Georgia’s government may have turned the page from the belligerent tone of the previous government and is doing what it needs to do to be a reliable neighbor, but active cross-border cooperation remains a long way off. By contrast, a NATO-member Georgia would be compelled to participate in the anti-terrorism activities facilitated through the NATO-Russia Council. And perhaps more importantly, a Georgia less concerned with Russia’s perceived territorial threat would see the long-term advantages in working to cultivate stability and economic development in the North Caucasus republics.

Opponents of Tbilisi’s NATO aspirations like to point to the 2008 war as evidence of the Georgian menace. Georgia’s offensive in South Ossetia, the narrative goes, was facilitated by false promises of aid from Washington and/or NATO. NATO membership, by this logic, would only doubly incentivize the (tiny) Georgian war machine. Yet, putting aside the unceasing blame-game over the origins of the war — which the EU-commissioned Tagliavini probe pegged on Russian provocations and Georgian indiscipline — the 2008 experience actually indicates the opposite. It was clear that neither Washington nor the Atlantic Alliance were in any hurry to come to Georgia’s aid against Russia.

Though NATO’s Article V would presumably protect Georgia from an unprovoked attack, the extraordinary prospect of a NATO-Russia war would be a powerful restraint – not an incentive – to renewed conflict. With Georgia having already pledged to resolve its separatist conflicts non-militarily and its reported willingness to entertain a NATO membership scenario that could exclude Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the specter of renewed conflict over the separatist regions may already be moot. In the best case, NATO membership would only solidify Georgia’s commitment to a peaceful solution to its territorial claims. Even in a less productive scenario, NATO membership would help to inhibit any hypothetical Georgian militarism.

Ultimately, Russia’s claim that NATO expansion to Georgia runs against its national interests do not stand up to scrutiny. By any reasonable measure, a NATO-member Georgia would be a more constructive neighbor and a stabilizing force for Russia’s restive North Caucasus region. Counter-intuitively, Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus could very well increase with Georgian NATO membership. After the 2008 war, Russia bafflingly jettisoned its most potent leverage with Georgia by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Were Georgia to accede to the Atlantic alliance, however, Tbilisi would not see its foreign policy inherently bound to politics of the perceived Russian threat. For example, the proposed Abkhazia railway, which would offer Russia a direct overland conduit to landlocked Armenia, would be a far less controversial proposition if Georgia had the assurances of NATO protection.

Russia’s actual interests-based argument against Georgian NATO membership is a thin case, stemming not from any rational calculation of Russia’s long-term national interests, but from an unconvincing mélange of sentiment and outdated conceptions of power. Solid growth rates are more impressive than petty vassals, and influence does not necessarily mean control. Logically, Russia has little to fear and much to gain from Georgian NATO membership if it could consider the case on its merits. Georgia should be permitted to make its own choice of foreign policy orientation, and Russia will be better off for it.

For its part, the U.S. and other advocates for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations should counter Russian opposition at its root and take greater pains to reassure Moscow that Georgian NATO membership would not only pose no threat, but that it would serve Russian interests as well. One hopes that this could provoke a genuine conversation in Russia about the very real political and economic opportunity cost of its reflexive policy against Georgian accession.

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