In the wake of US President Barack Obama's early July visit to Moscow, US Vice President Joe Biden will soon visit Georgia. But it's not entirely clear whether the message that Biden delivers to Tbilisi will be of strong US support for Georgia, or an admonition to not antagonize Russia.
Biden will visit Georgia and Ukraine from July 20-24. The precise itinerary, including the times when the vice president will be in each country, hasn't been released. Georgian observers anticipate Biden will come to personally brief Georgian officials on the private discussions between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Moscow, Obama surprised observers by how forcefully he spoke on Georgia and, in general, the rights of nations to choose what alliances they wanted. "State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order," Obama said in his July 7 speech at the New Economic School in Moscow. "Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That's why we must apply this principle to all nations -- and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine."
Obama's words on Georgia were perhaps the toughest things he said to Russia during his visit, said Lawrence Korb, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration. "When Obama talked about Georgia, and NATO expansion publicly, I thought; 'he's not giving them anything,'" Korb said.
The Georgian government has taken Obama's words to mean that the United States would forcefully defend Georgia in the case of another war with Russia. Georgian government officials are saying that Obama effectively threatened Medvedev over Georgia, said David Kakabadze, the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Georgian service.
"Three different high-ranking officials . . . spoke to us on conditions of anonymity confirming that Obama said to Medvedev: 'This time the United States would not stay away in the case of a new invasion in Georgia,'" Kakabadze told a group of journalists and policy analysts in Washington. "We are not sure about the wording, but two of those three sources said that the wording was something like: 'This time it will have grave consequences for Russia.'"
Many in Georgia believe that Biden's visit will be a show of support for Tbilisi. But members of the political opposition suggest that the vice president may also be coming to warn Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili not to provoke Russia, Kakabadze noted.
Obama's words in Moscow notwithstanding, Biden's visit will come as the US alliance with Georgia appears to be weaker than before the war with Russia. Washington has backed off somewhat on its push for NATO membership for Georgia, creating a new framework for Tbilisi to become part of the alliance to replace the standard Membership Action Plan. The White House also has dramatically cut democratization aid for Georgia. According to an analysis by the American watchdog organization Freedom House, the White House has reduced its democratization funding for Georgia in the coming year's US federal budget from $34.6 million to $20.4 million.
In addition, the United States is in the middle of a review of its security cooperation with Georgia, and one of the issues at stake is how the Washington will help rebuild the Georgian military after it was routed by Russia in the 2008 war. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. US officials have said that their previous military assistance, which was oriented towards making the Georgian military light and deployable (and thus appropriate for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan) would be rethought, and that perhaps Georgia would be better suited with a more traditional territorial defense-oriented military.
"During the visit, the vice president will meet with the political leadership of each country [Georgia and Ukraine], as well as opposition figures and civil society representatives," Biden's office said in a statement about the upcoming trip. "The vice president will demonstrate US support for continued democratic and economic reforms and discuss issues of mutual interest in both countries."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.