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Is NATO Door Closing On Georgia?

  • Despite NATO's promise of membership to both Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, talks in the upcoming summit focus on Ukraine while Georgia is being largely overlooked.
  • Georgia's journey towards NATO membership has been complicated by factors such as its strained relationship with Russia, perceived military vulnerability, and political issues raising doubts about its democratic credentials.
  • Despite these hurdles and a growing "NATO fatigue," 73% of Georgians remain in favor of NATO membership.
NATO

Since 2008, when NATO promised both Georgia and Ukraine that they "will become members," their geopolitical fates have appeared to be tightly linked: post-Soviet Russian neighbors straining to join the West.

Now, though, with the transatlantic military alliance's members preparing for an annual summit in Vilnius on July 11-12, all the talk is about Ukraine and how to bring a country that's battling a full-scale Russian invasion more closely into the NATO fold.

Georgia, where the Ukraine war has spurred fears of another Russian invasion, is barely an afterthought.

"Georgia and Ukraine -- which since 2008 have been sort of a tandem, moving toward the alliance at different speeds but always mentioned in the same breath -- I think the Ukraine-Georgia tandem is broken, probably irrevocably," Bob Hamilton, a former U.S. defense attache in Tbilisi and now head of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), a U.S.-based think tank, said. "Whatever happens with Ukraine at the Vilnius summit…no one is talking about a path to membership in NATO for Georgia."

While the war in Ukraine has accelerated Georgia's often uneven path toward EU candidacy, it has only slowed Tbilisi's advances toward joining NATO, Western analysts say. Georgia's ties with NATO are too cozy to avoid attracting Moscow's ire, they say, but not nearly close enough to ensure membership for the small state on Russia's southern border.

The strains were most recently reflected in Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's announcement last week of his decision to break with tradition by sending his foreign minister instead of attending NATO's Vilnius summit himself.

"We must tell the truth to our society and ourselves," Garibashvili told parliament on June 30, "acknowledging that we should not create unnecessary expectations."

Analysts say that key NATO allies including the United States remain unwilling to offer NATO membership -- and its cornerstone security guarantee, known as Article 5 -- to a weak country in what Moscow considers its sphere of influence.

Meanwhile, Garibashvili has called into question the kind of half-measures that the alliance has been offering in the absence of any guarantee of military protection against Russia.

"One of the main reasons was NATO, right? NATO enlargement," Garibashvili responded at a security conference in Bratislava on May 30 when a journalist asked him why he thought Russia invaded Ukraine. "One of the reasons was Ukraine's will and determination to become a member of NATO. And so, therefore, we see the consequences."

The Georgian prime minister's comments set off a political firestorm at home, with opposition figures accusing him of echoing Kremlin justifications for the war and seeking to steer Georgians eastward.

"[W]hile Ukraine will get something out of the Vilnius Summit, Georgia's momentum appears to be waning," Nata Koridze, managing editor of local news website Civil.ge and a former Georgian diplomat, wrote. "It is hard to imagine NATO embracing a country whose prime minister, echoing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's rhetoric, blames the Alliance for the war in Ukraine."

Garibashvili's Georgian Dream colleague, parliament speaker Shalva Papuashvili, then penned an op-ed complaining that it was NATO that had let Georgia down, demanding much of the country while offering little in return.

Georgia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1994 and declared its ambitions to join shortly after the Rose Revolution ousted the last of its Soviet-era leaders in 2003-04. The Bucharest declaration in 2008 included a pledge of eventual NATO membership, but a five-day war with Russian forces backing separatists in two Georgian republics four months later seemingly recast geopolitical calculations on all sides. By 2012, Georgian Dream was in power, and Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, was seemingly keen to reopen economic, cultural, and diplomatic ties with Russians.

"For all these years, Georgia did its best to become a member of NATO and get into the EU, despite the real and present danger of Russian reprisal for doing so. Despite becoming fully interoperable with NATO, developing democratic institutions beyond the Alliance's entry-level standards, and codifying European and Euro-Atlantic integration into its Constitution, Georgia has been left out in the cold," Papuashvili wrote. "We call on our partners, instead of directing undue criticism at us, to help us to overcome our security predicament and achieve well-deserved membership in NATO and the EU."

In fact, a Western diplomat in Tbilisi who requested anonymity to speak more freely told RFE/RL, Georgia's misgivings about NATO began to emerge before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The start of that full-scale war in February 2022, the source said, merely deepened some Georgians' sense that it was too risky to move toward NATO without an iron-clad guarantee that the West would come to Georgia's defense if necessary.

"In years past, there was a feeling of frustration among Georgian officials that the process was going so slowly, that the lack of a security guarantee made them more vulnerable. I think today they feel that more than ever, that the lack of a security guarantee leaves them vulnerable," the diplomat said. "Where they used to view receiving a Membership Action Plan" -- a MAP, the alliance's formal procedure for gaining membership -- "as a positive step, the prime minister made it clear in Bratislava that maybe his perception is that steps short of actual security guarantees actually increase Georgia's vulnerability rather than increasing Georgia's deterrence."

Asked if that assessment was accurate, the diplomat said, "I think only Putin knows if that is truly accurate, but I don't think it's irrational."

In lieu of offering a MAP to Georgia, NATO spent years creating a series of programs aimed at deepening ties between Georgia and the alliance.

Those have largely been seen as "consolation prizes" for not getting the real thing, resulting in a growing "NATO fatigue," according to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Walter Landgraf, a fellow at the FPRI's Eurasia Program.

Like Ukraine, Georgia has been "told for a very long time now, 15 years, if you keep working and keep working hard you will earn a Membership Action Plan," Landgraf said during a recent security conference in Tbilisi. "But instead of a Membership Action Plan other things are doled out by NATO."

Hamilton said that over time, NATO has become less willing to admit states on Russia's borders that aren't capable of protecting themselves. A move like bringing the Baltic states into NATO in 2004 "will not happen again," he said. "NATO is not going to admit countries that are military liabilities into the alliance. Georgia right now is a military liability to the alliance. Ukraine is not -- Ukraine has shown that it can defend itself, and very effectively."

Landgraf suggested the standards are less rigorous for countries farther from Russia. He noted that when North Macedonia was admitted in 2020, NATO acknowledged that country's military reform process was incomplete.

"North Macedonia doesn't border the Russian Federation. North Macedonia doesn't have territorial divisions," Landgraf said. "They are differing geopolitical contexts, but that is probably not comforting to ordinary Georgians."

Georgia's NATO aspirations also have suffered from the same political issues that have hampered its EU bid: a series of seemingly regressive policy decisions that have raised doubts among the country's Western partners about its democratic bona fides. NATO officials have increasingly raised those concerns.

NATO's liaison office in Tbilisi did not respond to queries from RFE/RL for this article.

Georgia's military cooperation with NATO has not suffered in the same way that its political ties have, the diplomatic source said. "At the technical level, whether it be military or civilian who are working to ensure Georgian interoperability -- especially on the military side -- that has not slowed at all," the diplomat said.

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Despite any "NATO fatigue" among officers and policymakers, membership remains a popular goal among Georgians. A survey conducted in March by the National Democratic Institute found 73 percent of respondents in favor of NATO membership compared to just 13 percent against it.

Georgian officials have said little publicly about what they hope to get from the upcoming NATO summit. The Defense Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comments for this article.

There have been proposals to remove a MAP as a formal requirement for Georgian accession, endorsed by opposition members of parliament. Such a move would "send the right signal to the Georgian people," Levan Dolidze, a former head of Georgia's mission to NATO, told RFE/RL.

Ukraine is unlikely to be granted a direct path to membership in Vilnius, either. But NATO members were reportedly working on a significant boost in military aid for Kyiv and a new NATO-Ukraine Council.

Meanwhile, Finland joined the alliance earlier this year and Sweden appears to be on the cusp of doing so, in accelerated processes that skipped the MAP step altogether. While neither is in direct conflict with Russia, their accelerated bids have raised questions about why such exceptions might not be allowed for Kyiv or Tbilisi.

"For many years, NATO has said to both Ukraine and Georgia that the Membership Action Plan is the next step on your direct way to membership. But NATO has also said that both countries already have the practical tools to prepare them for membership -- meaning that MAP is not a practical tool and holds mostly symbolic value," Landgraf said.

The result could be the unintentional specter of a double standard, he added, signaling "that there is one standard for countries like Finland and Sweden and then another standard for countries like Georgia and Ukraine."

If the polls are accurate, nearly three out of four Georgians hope that's not the case.

By RFE/RL

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