After Crimea, no avoiding the Georgia question

 

When President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev two weeks ago, the over-arching question was what would the Russians do?  Now that Moscow has invaded Crimea and appears poised to formally absorb the territory following a rushed referendum this Sunday, the singular question is what is the United States going to do? 

Eminent former statesmen and business leaders counsel President Obama to exercise caution.  Further inclining him in this direction is the reluctance of key European allies, especially those with financial or energy exposure to Russia, to stand up for the principle of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.  So, one might conclude that the administration will carefully calibrate its response to President Vladimir Putin’s Crimea gambit, eschewing anything that might provoke Moscow. 

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Unfortunately, as Marxist icon Leon Trotsky might have said, “you may not be interested in a confrontation, but a confrontation is interested in you.” 

The fact is that Crimea has fundamentally altered the context for a range of US-Russia issues, none more inescapably than Georgia’s bid to join NATO.  Precisely out of fear of upsetting Russia and bringing a frozen conflict into the alliance, NATO has so far stalled Georgia’s advancement toward membership.  But the prospect of a “hot war” between Russia and Ukraine has now far overtaken lingering concerns over Russia’s mostly settled occupation of two Georgian territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Moreover, as a NATO evaluation team recently confirmed, Georgia has fulfilled all the requirements to get its membership action plan or MAP, the final step before joining the alliance. 

In other words, there is simply no credible way to artificially retard the country’s NATO prospects.  If NATO leaders fail to advance Georgia at their upcoming Summit in Wales, the only possible conclusion will be that the alliance is allowing Russia to dictate the sovereign decisions of countries that lie in its “near abroad.”  This will undermine Washington’s efforts to shore up the confidence of Ukraine, Georgia and other states in the region – including some NATO members – that are deeply unsettled by Russian aggression.  

Skeptics will argue that the Kremlin can seize on Georgia’s promotion in NATO as the pretext to send Russian forces across Ukraine’s eastern border.  But as his actions in Crimea have shown, Putin hardly needs a pretext to act.  Furthermore, Georgia can be admitted to NATO without any obligation on the part of the alliance to recover the territories now occupied by Russia, a provision that should ease anxieties across the Atlantic and in Moscow.  Rather than provoke Putin, as part of the overall Western response to the Ukraine crisis, granting Georgia’s NATO advancement will restore an overall red line territorial sovereignty while confounding Putin’s strategy of slicing off bits of his neighbors’ territory in order to prevent them from joining NATO and the EU.  

Faced with an unavoidable decision, President Obama should announce his support for Georgia’s NATO advancement now, as part of the overall response to the Ukraine crisis, instead of waiting for a divisive scrum with nervous allies like Germany at the NATO summit.  A pre-emptive American announcement on Georgia, as long as it makes no mention of Ukraine’s potential bid to join the alliance, will actually help insulate Germany from Russian pique, enabling both Berlin and Moscow to look the other way and allow their mutually beneficial energy and investment relationship to continue.

Washington would gain more by seeking Turkish support for Georgia’s NATO bid.  Like Germany, Turkey is also heavily dependent on Russian energy.  But with a Black Sea naval presence not far from Crimea and exposure to instability in Turkey’s north, south and east, Ankara takes a much darker view of Russian territorial aggression.  What’s more, Turkey sees itself as protector of Crimea’s Tatar population which is adamantly opposed to Russian annexation.  Turkey’s embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already voiced his concerns to Putin over the Tatars.  Turkey enjoys good relations with Georgia and would benefit from the addition of a NATO member in the increasingly volatile Caucasus region.

For all its histrionics over Ukraine, Moscow is today far less neuralgic about Georgia than it once was.  Unlike in Ukraine, Moscow has already achieved its territorial and political aims in Georgia.   And for its part, after seminal elections over the past two years, Georgia has embarked on a decidedly different posture towards its more powerful northern neighbor.  Even hard line Russian nationalists have acknowledged the more responsible tone emanating from Tbilisi.  In many ways, Russia knows that Georgia proper is already “lost.”  Of course, the improvement in relations has not shaken the firm national consensus to join NATO and the EU in Georgia, which remains anxious over Russian maneuvers in the territories that Moscow occupies. 

Faced with the stark choice of tacitly accepting Russia’s right to veto the aspirations of the Georgian people or rewarding a staunch American ally that has earned its right to move toward NATO membership, President Obama should set caution aside and green light Georgia’s NATO bid.  In so doing, he will silence his Congressional critics who have accused him of being weak, while taking a bold step towards reaffirming American leadership in Europe and across the world.  Doing right by Georgia is the right way to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Joseph is a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, and Teresteli is director of Research at the Caucasus Institute, both at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.