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Georgia’s Hopes Of NATO Membership Recede

  • Liz Fuller

Georgian soldiers march at the military base of Vaziani outside Tbilisi during a farewell ceremony marking their departure to Afghanistan to take part in NATO's Resolute Support mission on March 24.

Georgian soldiers march at the military base of Vaziani outside Tbilisi during a farewell ceremony marking their departure to Afghanistan to take part in NATO's Resolute Support mission on March 24.

Any lingering hopes Georgia’s leaders may still have nurtured that the country would be formally offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at NATO’s Warsaw summit in July have been exposed as misplaced.

Addressing the Aspen Security Forum: Global In London on April 22, Douglas Lute, who is the U.S. ambassador to the alliance, said that in light of Russia’s perceived “internal weakness,” there is little “additional room” for the next few years, and possibly longer, for further NATO expansion.

Lute explained that “I think Russia plays an important part in the strategic environment, and the strategic environment will put a brake on NATO expansion.”

“If you accept the premises that we’ve heard here [during the panel discussion] about Russia’s internal weakness, and perhaps steady decline and so forth, it may not make sense to push further now and maybe accelerate or destabilize that decline. So in practical terms, I don’t think there is much additional room in the near term -- the next several years perhaps or even longer -- for additional NATO expansion,” he said.

Lute added that there is “no way” NATO’s 28 members will reach the necessary consensus “any time in the near future” on admitting Georgia or Ukraine. Just days earlier, in acknowledgement of what NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg termed the need “to keep channels of communication open” despite “profound and persistent disagreements,” the NATO-Russia Council met in Brussels for the first time since before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014.

Lute’s statement implies that Georgia will remain for the foreseeable future in the ambiguous limbo with regard to NATO to which it was relegated in 2008.

True, at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April of that year, at which Albania and Croatia were formally invited to begin accession talks, the alliance declared that both Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” and that “MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership” once “questions still outstanding” are resolved.

But just a few months later, Georgia’s chances of accession were set back “years” according to U.S. expert Ronald Asmus, by the brief Russia-Georgia war.

At subsequent NATO summits, including that in Wales in 2014, the alliance has consistently reaffirmed its willingness in principle to admit Georgia. At the same time, it continues to stipulate that the next step toward doing so is a MAP comprising reforms and other criteria that any aspiring NATO member must meet to qualify. To date, neither Georgia or Ukraine has been formally offered such a MAP, whether because doing so would bring into clearer focus the time frame for admission, or because NATO’s existing members are divided over whether the military and strategic benefits of admitting them outweigh the damage to NATO-Russian relations that would inevitably result.

For Tbilisi, NATO’s continued reluctance to offer a formal MAP rankles, especially in light of what then-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania described two years ago as the country’s “great leap forward” in enhancing both its defense capability and its interoperability with NATO. Then-Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili argued in February 2014 that Georgia should be offered a MAP at the Wales NATO summit in acknowledgment of that progress.

Instead of a MAP, however, NATO offered a “Substantial NATO-Georgia Package” encompassing additional measures to enhance Georgia’s defense readiness, including joint exercises and a Joint Training and Evaluation Center inaugurated in August 2015. Moscow denounced that initiative as “provocative” and likely to impact negatively on regional security.

Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili similarly told NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in May 2015 that Georgia is as ready to join the alliance as unnamed other prospective members were, and therefore NATO should either make a formal offer of a MAP at the 2016 Warsaw summit or state clearly that a MAP is no longer required as a precondition for NATO membership.

A statement adopted at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting last December acknowledged that “Georgia’s relationship with the alliance contains all the practical tools to prepare for eventual membership,” but at the same time again designated MAP “an integral part” of that process.

William Lahue, who heads the NATO Liaison Office in Georgia, was quoted as saying at a conference in Tbilisi last week that while a MAP is “a technical issue,” it has become “heavily politicized”

And in addition to the crucial precondition of a MAP, NATO is constrained, as Ambassador Lute admitted, by the need for consensus among its 28 members on the time frame for admitting new members. Some NATO member states, including Turkey, believe that technically Georgia could and should receive a formal invitation to join without first graduating from a MAP. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared as much in Strasbourg last week. France and Germany, by contrast, are believed to be unwaveringly opposed.

Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli admitted last week that while NATO membership remains the ultimate objective, she would consider the Warsaw NATO summit a success if it yielded unspecified “additional instruments” for improving Georgia’s defensive capabilities in the face of existing threats. A “detailed” plan listing such instruments was discussed during a NATO-Georgian ministerial meeting in February, she added.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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