Georgian soldiers take part in Exercise Noble Partner with the U.S. and UK in May 2016. (photo: U.S. Army)
Georgia has had to drop out of large-scale NATO military exercises because some of the soldiers slated to go were diagnosed with chicken pox.
This might not be a particularly newsworthy development for most countries but for Georgia, whose NATO membership aspirations are the foundation of its foreign policy, the episode has been controversial and embarrassing. Speculation arose that the chicken pox was just a cover story for Georgia's cold feet and fear of offending Russia, which government officials quickly tried to tamp down. Georgia's National Security Council has promised to take up the issue at its next meeting. And the Russian press eagerly seized on the event with headlines like "In Georgia, chicken pox turns out to be stronger than NATO."
The exercise, Anakonda 16, is taking place in Poland with 31,000 troops from 24 NATO and partner countries. NATO officials are framing the exercise as a "response to potential aggression from Russia against member states along the alliance’s eastern periphery." It will be followed by the alliance's summit in Warsaw, where the question of how to deal with Russia will be at the top of the agenda. Georgia, while not expecting to get an invitation for membership, nevertheless is hoping for "practical support" from NATO in its struggle against Russia.
Ongoing NATO war games in Georgia have elicited not just fears of a vindictive reaction from Russia, but also a healthy dose of homegrown sexism.
“You can’t give a woman a gun or let her make decisions,” proclaimed parliamentarian Tamaz Mechiauri, chairperson of the budget and finance committee, and a member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
He was referring to one particular woman, who packs more guns than anybody else in Georgia, 42-year-old Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli.
Khidasheli is the main host of the May 11-25 US-UK-Georgia drills, marked by columns of US tanks shipped by sea and paratroopers raining down from the sky. Moscow, as always, is warily watching this Western military show close to its borders; essentially a gunshot away from Russian military bases in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mechiauri is worried that Russia is worried. Following an angry statement by the Kremlin, Mechiauri, 61, came out to say on the eve of the drills that they spell danger for Georgia and the country should keep the Alliance at arm’s length lest it incur Moscow’s wrath.
He called for firing Khidasheli because a) she will get Georgia into trouble and; b) defense ain’t a woman’s job. “This country is a not a toy. You can’t have her drag tanks in and out,” he fumed, proposing that Khidasheli play computer war games instead.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a greater NATO presence in the Black Sea to counter Russia, potentially representing a policy shift for Ankara, which has traditionally jealously guarded its role as the sole Western power on the sea.
Speaking at a Balkan security conference in Istanbul, Erdogan complained that the sea has become a "Russian lake":
We should enhance our coordination and cooperation in the Black Sea. We hope for concrete results from the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 8, 9… The Black Sea should be turned into the sea of stability. I told the NATO secretary general that you are absent in the Black Sea and that is why it has nearly become a Russian lake. We should perform our duty as we are the countries with access to the Black Sea. If we do not take action, history will not forgive us.
The South Caucasus country of Georgia marked May 9, the day former Soviet republics celebrate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, with a debate about its Stalinist past and its NATO future.
As per tradition, elderly communists dusted off photos of their favorite Soviet dictator, wartime leader Joseph Stalin, as well as Soviet flags and World War II medals. Demanding the return of a monument to the Great Leader, they paraded Stalin’s bust through his hometown of Gori.
But this year they faced a rival rally, in which several rock bands performed to prove that Stalin is not the only rock star in town.
Just as the Communists marched with slogans proclaiming “Glory to Stalin!,” young activists gathered nearby with slogans declaring “Totalitarianism Kills!” and “Gori Is Not Red.” The red stars were pitted against the stars of the European Union, the place where Georgia, at least most of it, hopes to be in the future.
“The victory over fascism was undoubtedly a momentous event. Nobody denies that,” activist Nino Dalakishvili told Netgazeti.ge. “However, today when we see that [World War II] veterans are being used by political forces and these forces are being sponsored by Russia, we believe this is detrimental to our country. This is what we rally against. We want to defend our nation’s progressive, pro-Western policy.”
There are widespread concerns that Moscow, seeking a political foothold in Georgia, is enabling the growing, but still relatively marginal anti-Western rhetoric in the country.
U.S. Army officers load Abrams tanks on to a ferry in Varna, Bulgaria, to ship them to Georgia for NATO military exercises. (photo: U.S. Army)
The United States is for the first time shipping its tanks across the Black Sea for joint exercises with Georgia.
The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division loaded the tanks on to ferries in Varna, Bulgaria, in order to ship them to Batumi ahead of the second annual Noble Partner military exercises to be held later this month. The exercises will include 650 American troops, as well as 500 from Georgia and 150 from the United Kingdom.
Last year's Noble Partner (the first such exercise) was noteworthy for the fact that the U.S. shipped Bradley Fighting Vehicles across the Black Sea for the occasion. It was the first such movement of heavy U.S. materiel across the sea and was a vivid illustration of the U.S.'s ability to project power around Russia's periphery. This year's addition of tanks to the mix ups the stakes a little more.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visits a farmer in Georgia whose land was divided by a Russian-built fence on the administrative boundary with South Ossetia. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The top United States military official in Europe has visited Georgia, promising "bigger and better" joint military exercises and telling Georgians that to deter Russian aggression they should build ties with NATO and the U.S.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visited Georgia March 22-23. Breedlove has become known as one of the most anti-Russia hawks among current U.S. officials, and in Tbilisi he did not disappoint:
As your brave valiant nation has witnessed, Russia continues to extend its coercive and corrosive influence on its periphery. Now it's also trying to reestablish leading and aggressive role in a world stage. Russia automatically seeks to overturn the established rules and principles of the international system, fracture the unity of the free world and to challenge our solidity.
NATO and Georgian flags fly together as a four-ship NATO naval contingent visits Batumi, Georgia. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs, Georgia)
Russia is conducting snap exercises around the Black Sea and southern Russia as tensions continue to rise between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, a contingent of four NATO naval vessels -- including two from Turkey -- is visiting Georgia for joint exercises.
Russia began the exercises on Monday which reportedly involve 8,500 troops and 50 combat ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla. These sorts of large, unnanounced exercises have become common in Russia over the last several years, but analysts saw these particular drills as sending a message to Turkey.
"We've had many of these snap exercises over the past three years, it's a very correct element of training the armed forces. It's not at all necessary to see them as a signal to someone, but in this case it's of course also a signal to the Turks, because we are quickly and surely heading to war with them," said Alexander Khramichkin, a Russian military analyst, in an interview with newspaper Gazeta.ru.
Tension between Moscow and Ankara has remained high months after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet on the Syrian border. Most recently Russia accused Turkey of planning a land invasion of Syria, further heightening the risk of direct confrontation between the two powers.
The United States would give Georgia a big boost in aid to help it "resist Russian aggression" under a budget proposal announced this week by the White House. But Washington is deemphasizing military aid to Georgia, and a huge increase in Pentagon funding for a greater U.S. military presence around Russia's borders dedicates relatively little to Tbilisi.
The U.S. plans to give Georgia $63 million in general Economic Support Fund money in fiscal year 2017, up from $38 million this year, according to State Department budget documents. That money "will support Georgia’s democratization, economic development, Euro-Atlantic integration, and resistance to Russian aggression" and will be "targeted towards enhancing energy security and economic opportunities for populations susceptible to Russian influence."
But that aid is mainly for civilian programs, and American military aid to Georgia is set to decrease under this proposal. Aid to Georgia marked as Foreign Military Financing, intended for military equipment, will decrease from $30 million this year to $20 million in fiscal year 2017. Next year's funding is intended "to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support in areas such as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions."
Romania is pressing NATO to create a regular Black Sea flotilla in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, Romanian media have reported.
NATO, and in particular the United States, substantially stepped up their naval patrols in the Black Sea after the Crimean annexation, but thus far it's been done on an ad hoc basis. The Romanian proposal would create a regular "flotilla" reportedly also consisting of ships from Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United States, Romanian television station Digi24 reported.
Warships of countries not on the Black Sea are restricted from spending more than 21 days at a time there by the 1936 Montreux Convention. So if a NATO Black Sea fleet were to come to fruition members other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey would have to rotate their ships out regularly.
The increased NATO presence on the Black Sea has already been a major irritant to Russia. At the same time Russian naval vessels' use of the Bosphorus straits, which pass through the middle of Istanbul, to supply the war effort in Syria has become a flashpoint in the Russia-Turkey conflict.
Romania will try to bring the proposal up at the alliance's next summit, in Warsaw in July, Digi24 reported.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli speaks December 10 at the Washington think tank Heritage Foundation. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia's government is asking the United States to store some of its weaponry in the country in the case it were needed quickly to defend against Russia. The U.S., while announcing an ambitious plan to "preposition" equipment in several NATO countries on Russia's border, is so far declining to do so in Georgia.
By the end of next year, the U.S. Army hopes to have what it calls "European Activity Sets" placed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the top Army commander in Europe, General Ben Hodges, said this week. The sets would consist of vehicles and weaponry so that American soldiers coming to the area for training, or for a quick deployment, would have gear waiting for them.
Hodges added that the army is not now considering additional sites. But Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, visiting Washington this week, is lobbying for Washington to change its mind and to include Georgia in that list.
“Putting more security in [the] Baltics or eastern border of NATO is the same value for us as putting it in Georgia, because deterring Russia anywhere means more security for Georgia,” Khidasheli said in an interview with the newspaper Defense News. “But at the same time, we hope that Georgia will be part of that deal, as well, and we will get our share in this entire picture of European security setup … we will see. We’re negotiating all those issues and I’m very optimistic that we will get our portion from this.”