June 14, 2016

June 14, 2016 | Issue Brief on International Conflicts

NATO Summit 2016: Keeping Georgia on the Membership Track

The early July NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, offers an opportunity for the alliance to thank Georgia for its contribution in Afghanistan, congratulate Georgia on its military reforms, and lay the groundwork for deeper cooperation paving the way to eventual membership.

The U.S. should continue to support Georgia’s NATO aspirations and ensure that the summit delivers a capabilities package that will enhance the NATO–Georgian relationship while improving Georgia’s defensive military capabilities. The alliance should live up to its 2008 promise and keep Georgia on track for NATO membership. In the long run, this would bring more stability to the South Caucasus and transatlantic regions.

A Committed Partner

While few expected Georgia to receive an invitation to join the alliance at the upcoming summit, NATO’s decision to not even grant a Membership Action Plan (MAP) has come as a huge blow to those in Tbilisi who are pushing for deeper Euro-Atlantic integration away from Moscow.

After the Russian invasion in 2008 and the subsequent Russian occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, Georgia has transformed its military and has been steadfast in its support for overseas security operations. Georgia has contributed thousands of troops to Iraq, and hundreds of peacekeepers to the Balkans, and currently has 150 soldiers deployed in the Central African Republic.

In many ways, Georgia has been a model for other countries in Europe. Perhaps Georgia’s greatest contribution has been in Afghanistan. At the height of the war, Georgia had almost 2,000 soldiers in the dangerous southern part of the country, making it the largest per capita troop-contributing nation in the coalition.

While many NATO countries refused to keep sizable troop numbers (if any at all) in Afghanistan for the post-combat training mission, Georgia currently maintains 860 troops in the country. This is the third-largest contribution after the U.S. and Germany. Moreover, Georgia currently contributes an infantry company to the NATO Response Force.

The Long Road to NATO

Georgia was promised eventual membership at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008. Since then, not all members of the Alliance have been supportive. This is especially true of France and Germany, which have an uncomfortably close relationship with Russia.

Even though Georgia has not been given a MAP, it has a relationship with NATO that far exceeds the traditional MAP process, such as the Annual National Program, the NATO–Georgia Commission, and the Substantial NATO–Georgia Package that was agreed to at the last summit.

Some NATO members are concerned that Georgia’s entry into NATO would trigger an automatic war with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, Georgian officials say that they are happy to accept a NATO membership arrangement or compromise that excludes the two occupied regions from NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee until the matter is resolved peacefully with the Russians. (They stress, however, that this does not compromise Georgia’s territorial integrity and that the two occupied regions will always remain a legal part of Georgia.) To demonstrate its commitment, Georgia made a “non-use of force” pledge regarding the occupied region, which Russia has failed to do.

Building on the Wales Summit

The last NATO summit was a success for Georgia. NATO agreed to the Substantial NATO–Georgia Package, which has brought huge benefits to the Georgian military, but more can be done.

Keeping NATO focused on Georgia’s Euro–Atlantic path will require American leadership. The U.S. needs to ensure that the upcoming summit recognizes Georgia’s commitment and sacrifices to transatlantic security. The U.S. and NATO should:

  • Make it clear that a Membership Action Plan is not required. It is a common misconception that a MAP is a requirement for joining the Alliance. NATO members should not use this technicality as a road block for Georgia’s future membership. With the Annual National Program, the NATO–Georgia Commission, and the Substantial NATO–Georgia Package, Georgia’s relationship with NATO is closer now than it would have been under the traditional MAP.
  • Publish a separate summit declaration on NATO’s support for Georgia. NATO leaders often agree on separate declarations, apart from the main declaration, regarding specific issues of importance. A separate declaration on NATO’s support for eventual Georgian membership in the Alliance would send the right message to the Georgian people that their sacrifice and commitment have not gone unnoticed.
  • Ensure that the Alliance is clear on Georgia’s future membership. The summit declaration should make it clear that Georgia’s successful completion of subsequent Annual National Programs, the close relationship through the NATO–Georgia Commission, and the Substantial NATO–Georgia Package are the true markers of progress that will bring Georgia closer to ultimate membership.
  • Ensure that the NATO–Georgia Commission meeting takes place at the heads-of-government level. Currently, this meeting is planned for the foreign-ministers level. This sends the wrong signal to the Georgian people. The NATO–Georgian Commission should be held at the heads-of-government level to demonstrate the importance with which NATO views its relationship with Georgia.
  • Ensure that the Substantial NATO–Georgia Package is fully resourced. While the Substantial NATO–Georgia Package has done a lot to improve the capabilities of the Georgian Armed Forces, full implementation of the package has been slow and incomplete. NATO should ensure that the resources are dedicated to fulfill the complete package in a timely manner.
  • Help the Georgians defend themselves. Every country has the inherent right to self-defense. The U.S. and NATO allies should sell defensive anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry to Georgia. So long as the weapons are defensive in nature, there is no reason not to provide them to the Georgian military.
  • Develop a strategy for the Black Sea region. The Black Sea sits at an important crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Caucasus. Ever since Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the Black Sea has essentially become a Russian lake. The U.S. needs to work with the Black Sea littoral states, especially Georgia, to develop a strategy for regional security.
  • Refer to the Russian military presence as an occupation. In the summit declaration, NATO should call the presence of several thousand Russian troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia what it is: an occupation. To date, many European countries have failed to use this terminology. Given recent events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, it is more important than ever that NATO send a united and clear message.

On Track to Membership

Georgia is a staunch ally of the U.S. and NATO. It is located in a dangerous and important geopolitical neighborhood for NATO. Georgians have proven themselves to be gallant in combat. They are also undertaking a defense transformation program that is an example to all of NATO. Even with the Russian threat, Georgia has been able to implement serious defense reforms, and continues to participate in security operations at a rate much higher than that of many NATO members. The Warsaw NATO Summit provides the alliance a perfect opportunity to strengthen the bilateral relationship with Tbilisi.

—Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Luke Coffey Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy