Romanian and Georgian soldiers practice clearing a room during NATO exercises in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO militaries wrapped up joint exercises in Georgia this week, as the alliance tries to strengthen its position in the Caucasus as a counterweight to Russia, and Tbilisi tries to leverage NATO's newly sharpened confrontation with Russia to achieve its long-held goal of membership in the alliance.
The exercise, Agile Spirit, involved about 250 soldiers from Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. It was the first NATO exercise held at the Vaziani base outside Tbilisi as a result of the decision, made at last year's NATO summit in Wales, to open a training base in Georgia. (Exercises named Agile Spirit have been held in Georgia in the past, but those were bilateral U.S.-Georgia exercises; those now have a new name. Noble Partner.)
The exercises took place in an atmosphere of heightened tension between Russia and Georgia; while the exercises were going on the former moved the border a bit in a possible attempt to provoke the latter or at least to visibly throw its weight around.
Russia announced this week that it has formally cut off the transit of NATO military cargo through Russian territory. But in theory, Moscow remains open to cooperation on Afghanistan: it annulled the agreement only after NATO quietly allowed the agreement to lapse after the formal combat mission in Afghanistan ended at the end of 2014. And the comparable military transit agreement with the United States remains in effect, though the Pentagon isn't currently using Russian territory for its Afghan transit.
On May 18, the Russian government announced that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had signed a decree annulling the NATO transit agreement. Russia has allowed NATO countries to transport equipment to Afghanistan since 2008, and even allowed NATO to set up a controversial logistics facility in Ulyanovsk in 2012, though the latter, in the end, was rarely used.
In general, the transit routes through the former Soviet Union -- collectively known as the Northern Distribution Network -- have declined in significance over the last few years. The main reason is that Pakistan, which offers a much closer route to the sea from Afghanistan, has become a more reliable partner, making it a much more economical option and Russia and the rest of the NDN effectively a backup.
As NATO officials gathered last week in the Turkish beach city of Antalya, Turkish officials used the occasion to make unusually strong commitments affirming their support of the alliance in its growing conflict with Russia.
Turkey announced that it would head the alliance's new Spearhead Force in 2021. Plans for the Spearhead Force, a rapid reaction unit staffed from NATO member militaries, were drawn up last year explicitly to combat potential Russian attempts to destabilize NATO countries.
In remarks at the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Cavusoglu explicitly criticized Russian policy in the region. AFP reported that Cavusoglu said "Ankara was prepared to play a 'constructive role' in the disputes between Russia and the West over Ukraine. But he said: 'Nothing can justify what Russia has been doing in its neighbourhood.... Ukraine. Crimea. Georgia.'"
And Cavusoglu also called for the next NATO summit in Warsaw in 2016 to accept new members. "We favour NATO expansion. Currently we have four candidate countries – Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Georgia. And we would like to see the 2016 Summit aimed at expansion,” he said.
U.S. Army vehicles and soldiers arrive in Georgia for joint military exercises Noble Partner. The heavy equipment was ferried from Bulgaria across the Black Sea. (photos: U.S. Army)
The United States Army is conducting first-of-their-kind joint military exercises in Georgia to train for NATO rapid-response missions.
While the U.S. and Georgia have conducted plenty of joint military exercises befofe, this one will be the "most robust" one to date, according to Pentagon officials. One innovation: the U.S. shipped 14 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles across the Black Sea from Bulgaria to Georgia, along with several other support vehicles. While U.S. military officials reportedly thought that the presence of Bradleys on the Black Sea "might provoke a reaction by the Kremlin," so far that doesn't seem to have happened. (One also wonders whether they crossed paths with the two Chinese frigates now in the Black Sea.)
"This is the first time that the U.S. Army has deployed a mechanized company worth of equipment across the Black Sea," the U.S. Army said in a press release. As the old military cliche goes, amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics. "[This] movement from Varna, Bulgaria, across the Black Sea to the port of Batumi in Georgia, opens new avenues for transport with partner nations. Expanding freedom of movement enables easier access to training with allies as well as responding quickly to contingency operations," said one American logistics officer, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Shawen.
U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers conduct joint military exercises in 2014 at the Vaziani military base. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO appears to have settled on a site for its planned training facility in Georgia, where the alliance plans to start conducting military exercises by the end of this year.
NATO's Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, wrote in a letter to Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze that the alliance favors the Vaziani military base, about 20 kilometers outside the capital, Tbilisi, in the vicinity of the international airport.
"From my point of view, Vaziani military base is a strong candidate for locating a joint training and assessment centre,” Vershbow wrote in the letter, reported agenda.ge. Vershbow further "expresses hope that the Georgian side will make a decision about the training centre’s location together with NATO experts in the near future," agenda.ge wrote.
Vaziani is a former Soviet base that remained in the hands of the Russian military until 2001. Russia bombed it during the 2008 war with Georgia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia.
All things considered Russia has responded with relative equanimity to the news of the new NATO facility in Georgia. But Moscow naturally objects; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained last month in a meeting with his de facto South Ossetian counterpart David Sanakoyev about “the non-stop process to drag Georgia into NATO... Naturally, if these measures start to take practical shape – evidently, this process has already begun – we will take measures to prevent negative effects of these developments."
Just days after Turkey's defense minister said that its new, controversial air defense system would not be integrated with NATO's, the president's spokesman openly contradicted him.
"As one of the most important countries in NATO's security line, we will definitely ensure this integration and harmony," said Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kalin did not address the other recent plot twist in this long-running saga -- that Ankara's decision on whether to continue as planned with a Chinese system, or instead switch to a Western one, would be based on how the bidding countries mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
But his statement does -- again -- make it appear likely that Ankara will eventually reverse course and decide to go with a Western, NATO-compatible system. NATO officials have repeatedly argued that they could not integrate a Chinese system into their own for security purposes, and failing to integrate NATO's system would be a big handicap for Turkey. By not integrating with NATO "Turkey will lose half of its radar capabilities,” one unnamed defense analyst told Hurriyet Daily News.
Turkey analyst Aaron Stein notes that Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, whose remarks initially set all this off, may not know what he's talking about, and in any case the decision is not going to be made in the defense industry but in the presidential palace.
Georgian soldiers undergo U.S. Marine Corps training at the Vaziani training base in 2013. Vaziani is one of the possible locations for a NATO training base to be set up in Georgia this year. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO's planned military training center in Georgia will start operations this year, a senior alliance official said on a visit to Tbilisi.
"Starting this year, we aim to hold periodic military exercises here in your country, with NATO Allies as well as with other interested NATO partners," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at a January 30 speech in Tbilisi.
The exercises will be held at a "Joint Training and Evaluation Centre," the establishment of which NATO and Georgia announced last September. A location for the center still hasn't been determined, but one of the items on Vershbow's agenda in Georgia was to scout out locations; Civil.ge reported that one of the candidates sites he visited was the Vaziani training range near Tbilisi.
"This will be the most visible element of a NATO presence in Georgia. The Centre could host live and simulated training and certification for Allied and partner military units, in particular for units committed to the NATO Response Force," Vershbow said. "And it could also host exercises and training in support of our Connected Forces initiative."
But much remains uncertain about the center. According to Civil.ge, Vershbow said that NATO and Georgia "have yet to “flesh out the goals and purposes of the center," and that it's still not clear whether the center will host only command exercises (i.e. officers on computers) or field exercises with soldiers.
Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze sees off troops on their way to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The Georgian armed forces have begun their new mission in northern Afghanistan, serving as the rapid-reaction force under German command in Mazar-e-Sharif.
A reconnaissance company totaling about 170 soldiers was sent off at a ceremony in Georgia December 16. It will take part in NATO's new Resolute Support mission, which is set to formally begin on January 1. While the mission will no longer be oriented toward combat, the rapid-reaction forces will be there to protect coalition troops.
And so Georgia, again, has taken on one of the "tip-of-the-spear" (as the U.S. military might put it) roles in Afghanistan. For four years Georgian troops conducted combat missions in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. Now, in addition to the company in Mazar-e-Sharif (where they'll be serving alongside neighbors Armenia), a Georgian battalion has been deployed to Bagram since November, under U.S. command, guarding the base there.
Georgia will have a total of 750 soldiers serving in Resolute Support, remaining the largest non-NATO contributor of troops to Afghanistan. The send-off ceremony was attended by Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, as well as representatives from NATO and the German armed forces.
Echoing a string of Georgian officials across several changes of government, Janelidze explicitly tied Georgia's contribution in Afghanistan to its aspirations to join NATO.
Georgia is busy pondering the legal options to discourage its citizens from joining the jihad in Syria, which allegedly has attracted dozens of recruits from the country’s remote Pankisi Gorge, a predominantly Muslim area.
“It is going to be a preventive mechanism to make sure our citizens know that if they participate in illegal foreign military formations…the state will take measures against them,” said Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security Chairperson Irakli Sesiashvili. Rustavi2 reported. The nature of the “measures” remains unknown, but they could entail tougher administrative and criminal penalties.
The actual impact of such a law is open to interpretation, however.
Addressing “endemic poverty and radical (usually foreign) influencers” could prove a more effective way of tackling the issue of Pankisi residents heading to Syria, one analyst familiar with Georgia, Michael H. Cecire of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, commented to RFE/RL.
The number of Islamic-war recruits from Pankisi (and, reportedly, from Muslim communities in the Black-Sea region of Achara) reportedly remains low, but it has resulted in embarrassment for Georgia’s plans to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and NATO Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai meet in Tbilisi. (photo: Georgian Ministry of Defense)
NATO officials are in Georgia doing the preliminary work to set up a training facility, an official from the alliance said on a visit to Tbilisi.
The establishment of the joint training facility, announced in September, was the main component of the "substantial package" that NATO had long promised Georgia for continuing to be a good ally. James Appathurai, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, was in Tbilisi this week meeting with officials including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to discuss the implementation of the package.
“We welcome very much the speed with which Georgia has been working to define this new joint training center,” Appathurai said, according to Civil.ge, and he added that NATO defense planning experts are already in Georgia, working closely with the Georgian colleagues on this issue.
"NATO is already participating very actively and we are already identifying the people who will be coming in here, defining where the joint training center will be – that’s a Georgian decision of course, hopefully we can define it together," Appathurai said. "There will be further high-level visits to focus on implementation.”
Appathurai's visit followed a visit two weeks ago by Garibashvili to NATO headquarters in Brussels, where NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the package will "move Georgia closer to NATO":