Tiny Georgia has become the front line in West-Russia tensions for the past month. It began at the NATO Bucharest Summit in early April, when NATO members rebuked immediate progress toward full NATO membership for Georgia, due largely to protests from Russia – while nonetheless promising future membership. In the month since Bucharest, Russia-Georgia relations have spiraled quickly. Multiple Georgian unmanned aircraft are claimed to have been shot down over the breakaway region of Abkhazia, though disinformation (i.e. – blatant lies) coming from Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, or all three, have blurred the facts. Russia has also deepened ties with Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and increased its number of “peace-keepers” there despite protests from the EU and NATO. At the same time, Russia is accusing Georgia of preparing an invasion into Abkhazia, and Georgia has pulled out of an air-defense treaty with Russia.
While both Russia and Georgia are contributing to escalating tensions, Russia undoubtedly initiated the latest downturn as a response to Georgia’s bid for NATO membership.
As argued by Jens F. Laurson and George A. Pieler in Forbes :
Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin may have read NATO’s deferral as a signal to make his move on Georgia unchecked… reinventing the Soviet empire bit by bit clearly remains an active Putin project.
In this increasingly hostile environment, Georgia is playing a risky game: much smaller than its imposing former-imperial master Russia, Georgia is acting much like the small kid in the playground who decides to stand up to the school bully, because he expects (or at least hopes) his big brother will back him up. Georgia has made no secret of its dependency on Western protection.
Georgian Vice-Prime-Minister Giorgi Baramidze is quoted by the EU Observer:
“If, God forbid, things go wrong, it would not only destabilise Georgia, but the whole of Europe.” However, he warned that Europe and the West were facing a “moment of truth” in their ability “to protect democracies, no matter how small and fragile they are. “The formal position of the EU and NATO has been taken and now it is time to act accordingly, using all diplomatic, political and legal levers.”
Given Georgia has little leverage over Russia, its desperate pleas for Western support are well placed, as pointed out by the Wall Street Journal:
Renewed fighting in Abkhazia is a win-win for Russia. Georgia would be outgunned in any direct confrontation with Russian forces. It can’t count on support from Europe. And any hot conflict would impair Georgia’s chances of joining NATO.
The big question is, will Europe and the US come to Georgia’s aid?
Perhaps Georgia’s strategic location, on a key westward route for Caspian Sea oil and gas riches, will keep the West backing it. More details on Georgia’s strategic significance are provided in an audio interview by the Economist, with Alexandros Petersen of the Brussels-based Caspian Europe Center.
While the EU and NATO have chosen to support Georgia in rhetoric, it is hard to say how the West will respond if the dispute turns violent – and this has important implications for whether or not NATO should be so eager to take in Georgia as a full Ally. As Laurson and and Pieler note in the same Forbes article from above:
NATO has value not unlike a marriage vow. In bad times, the partners can’t run off quite so easily. Granting this need (or plausible rationale) for NATO, the expansion to Georgia and Ukraine–put off for now, but a forgone conclusion–should be settled by the question of original importance: Would we, were these states attacked in some way, be willing to put everything on the line in defending it?
Kyle Atwell, of the Atlantic Review, published this post on Blogactiv as part of a media partnership .Blogactiv Team