Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on June 4. (photo: NATO)
Georgia was one of the main topics of the discussion as defense ministers from NATO countries met in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, which focused on the alliance's response to Russia's newly aggressive behavior. But in spite of the dramatically altered circumstances, the discussion about Georgia repeated the same themes and phrases that have been used for the last several years. Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that he supports Georgia's territorial integrity and opposes Russia's recognition of the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that Georgia is making progress towards NATO accession. And when journalists tried to pin him down about what, exactly, Georgia might expect at the upcoming summit in Wales, he was vague, saying "more remains to be done to open the door to NATO membership," without specifying who needs to do more.
The news, perhaps, was the dog that didn't bark: the request for NATO "defensive weapons" to be deployed to Georgia, which seemed not to be mentioned at all in Brussels. It was just a month ago that Defense Minister Irakli Alasania made the public request while in Washington, and NATO officials said they would look into it, comparing it to the deployment of air defense systems to Turkey's border with Syria. But since then, the proposal faced criticism from all sides.
Russia's was of course the most predictable objection. "Some Georgian politicians aspire to join NATO by any means without thinking that it can harm the security of other states. To that end, we were concerned by the statements made by the Georgian Defence Minister, Irakli Alasania, in Washington, who appealed for the deployment of US and NATO anti-missile defence systems in Georgia," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich. "We inevitably have questions for Tbilisi about its real intentions and whom these systems, if deployed, will protect the Georgian territory from."
But the reaction from within Georgia was also harsh. Vice-Speaker of the parliament Manana Kobakhidze said Alasania spoke about the proposal "prematurely." And last week Georgia's envoy to Russia Zurab Abashidze seemed to put the matter to rest, saying in an interview that "there are no plans for the placement of American or NATO-member equipment on Georgian territory, Russia should be well informed about that."
Some of the objections had to do more with internal politicking than with the substance of the request, said Michael Cecire, an analyst of security issues in the Caucasus, in an email to The Bug Pit. And Abashidze's statement leaves room for manuever, Cecire added, suggesting that his denial referred to ballistic missile defense systems which, "other than a brief request during the Saakashvili era, isn't really what Tbilisi has been requesting and likely not what Alasania had in mind when he made his pitch in Washington. Tactical anti-air systems is another category entirely and one that the Georgian government has been quietly pursuing for awhile."
On June 3, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a $1 billion fund to boost the defenses of NATO's easternmost members and other friendly countries on Russia's borders: "We will be stepping up our partnerships with friends like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as they provide for their own defense." That's pretty vague and it echoes things the administration has been saying for a few months now. But the U.S. and NATO are clearly pushing their military center of gravity further east. What that means for Georgia remains to be seen.