U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets a Georgian soldier during his visit to Tbilisi. (photo: MoD Georgia)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Georgia, and on the agenda was Georgia's planned purchase of American military helicopters and Georgia's joining the emerging U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
The deal for Blackhawk utility helicopters has been in the works since at least 2012. But this is the first time it seems to have been discussed very publicly, and the two sides seem to be getting close: "One of the things that I noted here is that [Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania] and I discussed as to how we go forward on Georgia's request for helicopters and pricing and availability -- that being the next step as to how that works," Hagel said at a press conference in Tbilisi.
It wasn't announced how these would be financed, but this variant -- the Sikorsky S-70i, produced in Poland -- cost about $5 million each. Georgia's defense budget for this year is under $400 million -- that is, about 80 Blackhawks -- and that has to cover troops' pay and care in addition to any new equipment procurement. Alasania has previously said that Russian-type helicopters are too expensive to maintain given the difficulty Georgia has getting spare parts. Those are "credible complaints," said Michael Cecire, a Washington-based Georgia analyst, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "But why US platforms, specifically? Partially for the prestige and symbolism, but also likely with an eye on reinforcing bilateral ties and building those prized business relationships with US defense companies," he said.
There was no mention of the deployment of any air defense systems, incidentally, either at the NATO summit or during Hagel's visit, which had been another of Tbilisi's military priorities.
Another intriguing element of Hagel's visit was the discussion of Georgia joining the U.S.'s efforts against the Islamist ISIS group in Syria and Iraq. “The minister [Alasania] and I had a very good discussion on potential ways that Georgia could play an important role in this partnership with the United States and our coalition partners to destroy the ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] threat,” Hagel said. "We fully support what the United States is doing to eradicate these barbarians," Alasania added. “We have developed quite an institutional building experience that will help probably Iraqis to put together their own armed forces. Trainings, exercises – these are the things that come to our mind, but as the Secretary [Hagel] mentioned in our discussions I think Georgia can play a supportive role in what they [the coalition] are trying to achieve.”
Hagel visited Georgia directly after the NATO summit in Wales, where the alliance, flush with a revival of its anti-Russia mission, promised Georgia several new forms of cooperation including NATO exercises and a NATO training facility in the country.
It was the first visit of a Pentagon chief to Georgia since Donald Rumsfeld visited in 2003, and Hagel's first to any country in the Caucasus or Central Asia since he's been defense secretary (other than a brief stopover at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan).
"The deepening ties between NATO and Georgia are especially important, given the dangerous and irresponsible actions of President Putin," Hagel said.
While Georgia's star has risen as tension with Russia rises, it's still not clear from Washington how it could benefit from closer ties with Tbilisi, Cecire said. Washington wanted to demonstrate support for Georgia after a NATO summit in which Georgia didn't receive any tangible progress toward full membership. "Following what can only be described as a disappointing -- if not entirely unexpected -- NATO summit, there was certainly hope in Tbilisi that the US would be willing to proffer more on the bilateral side to help compensate," Cecire said.
The NATO disappointment, Cecire added, "only augments Georgian emphasis on the bilateral relationship. But there also seems to be some policy uncertainty; Georgia is well-regarded as a partner in overseas operations -- hence Hagel's conversation with Alasania about a Georgian role in combating ISIS -- but it's still seen as a risky geopolitical proposition at a time when resources are scarce and declining without any kind of "peace dividend" from the Iraq and Afghanistan withdrawals."