Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has asserted that his recent visit to the United States raised US-Georgian strategic ties to a “new level.” American officials have been much more reticent on bilateral defense issues, raising questions about what exactly was discussed in Washington.
The issue of defense cooperation between the two countries has been a fraught one since the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. Since then, the United States has not provided Georgia with weaponry, though it has extended substantial military training. Georgian officials have complained about a “de facto embargo,” and Saakashvili accordingly placed the weapons issue at the top of his agenda for Washington meetings.
After talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on February 1, Saakashvili spoke effusively about an apparent upgrade in security relations between the two countries. “I heard everything I wanted to hear,” he said. “We are not going back empty handed but we [have] so many things to carry back that it’s sensational.”
During his many public appearances in Washington, Saakashvili repeatedly used the “new level” formulation in characterizing the direction that the US-Georgian security relationship was taking.
In a follow-up meeting between Georgian Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia and his American counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Brussels, “The US side expressed its readiness to extend assistance with regard to enhancing Georgia’s defense capabilities which implies new levels of cooperation,” the Georgian Ministry of Defense said in a press release. “From now on the American side will focus not only on preparation of Georgian military servicemen for peacekeeping operations, but on enhancing and improving Georgia’s defense capabilities.”
US officials have been far more measured in their statements, tending to speak more on democratization than on security issues. For example, Clinton said after her meeting with the Georgian president; “There’s a lot of work going on in our bilateral consultations on education, on health, on good governance, on rule of law, on defense and security cooperation.”
There was a similar rhetorical disconnect after Saakashvili's meeting with US President Barack Obama. The American president spoke about defense cooperation within the context of “a wide range of areas where we're working together.” Saakashvili, meanwhile, focused on military matters. “We are very grateful for elevating our defense cooperation further, and talking about Georgia's self-defense capabilities and developing [them]. That's of course an important message back to my nation.”
At a February 2 news conference, State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, was asked about the “new level” of defense cooperation. “The United States and Georgia have agreed to continue to develop our bilateral defense and security cooperation. This cooperation is built on the successful programs that we already have to help the Georgian military in its reform effort, something that we do with many militaries around the world, including many of Georgia’s neighbors, and their defense modernization effort to support their self-defense,” she responded.
A State Department spokesperson declined to elaborate further to EurasiaNet.org. The Georgian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
US-Georgian relations have remained strong since the start of the Obama administration, which has, in fact, laid the groundwork for a “new level” of defense cooperation, even if the specifics aren't yet clear, according to a US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is a sense that the administration has a different view on defense matters than they have in the past,” the official said.
When the Obama administration took office in 2009, “they probably considered the Georgians troublemakers, that they created this mess with the Russians and dragged us into it,” the official said. But an invitation to the Oval Office, where Obama announced the possibility of a free-trade agreement between the two countries, suggests the relationship is in fact warming. And Georgia's cooperation on securing World Trade Organization membership for Russia gained Tbilisi some credit with the administration, the official added.
Nevertheless, Saakashvili may have exaggerated somewhat in describing a “new level” of military cooperation. “He likes to emphasize the positive, and take something small and make it into something bigger than what it really is. But that's what a statesman does,” the official said.
“He has a domestic audience, ... and also a Russian audience,” the official added. Saakashvili wanted to send a message to Moscow that “the Americans haven't abandoned us, they're still with us, even this administration.”
US officials may have made general statements about reinstating weapons provisions to Georgia, but have yet to make a decision about what that will mean, said Cory Welt, a Caucasus expert and associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. Part of that decision likely will be contingent on the conduct of parliamentary elections this year and presidential elections next year in Georgia, Welt suggested.
“If the elections go in a way that we deem proper then we might consider other things on the table, and if they don't, then nothing new,” Welt said.
The Obama administration may be coming to the position that it is time to consider advancing the defense relationship, Welt said. Pressure from Congress is increasing: the most recent defense authorization bill mandated a “normalization” of defense relations with Georgia, including a provision on “defensive weapons,” although Obama said he did not intend to follow that direction.
There may also be gradual movement on another of Georgia's top defense priorities, joining NATO. During a December visit to Tbilisi, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Eric Rubin noted that NATO officials had seen “significant progress in significant number of areas in Georgia’s efforts to advance its candidacy for membership in NATO.” Rubin added it was important that progress be recognized at the next NATO summit, in Chicago this May, according to the website Civil.ge.
After his meeting with Saakashvili, Obama implied that Georgia's NATO membership is still a long-term project. “I reaffirmed to the president, and reassured him, that the United States will continue to support Georgia's aspirations to ultimately become a member of NATO,” Obama said.
That, and other signals from the visit, suggested that there wouldn't be any substantial change in the US position on NATO membership, said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I don't think there is any news on the defense relationship from this visit. We had a general reiteration of US support for NATO membership but Obama used the word 'ultimate' which shows he believes it's far from imminent,” de Waal said.
Still, the United States wants to reward Georgia for its cooperation, and is looking for a way to somehow deepen Georgia's ties to the alliance without making substantial steps that might alarm Russia, the US defense official said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.