NATO policy in the South Caucasus primarily serves U.S. interests to contain Russia’s influence in the region. But will it be able to provide real security once it is needed?

Georgian servicemen stand in formation during an opening ceremony of the Georgia-NATO joint training and evaluation center at the Krtsanisi settlement outside Tbilisi, Georgia, August 27, 2015. Photo: Reuters

The upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw has the potential to become one of the most important international events of the year. The July event will occur against the backdrop of the most serious confrontation with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. As a result, NATO Summit participants will make important decisions that will determine the European security agenda for years to come.

News reports on the upcoming Warsaw Summit often mention the South Caucasus region. In their comments, politicians and experts focus on two major issues: Georgia and the prospects of its NATO membership and Moscow’s “stubborn” reluctance on the Alliance’s eastward expansion that involves the incorporation of former Soviet countries.

To what extent is Brussels interested in the South Caucasus? What are the risks of converting the region into a point of contention between Russia and the West, especially in the light of currently unresolved ethno-political conflicts?

How NATO views the Caucasus

After the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the emergence of new post-Soviet sovereign states, NATO did not exhibit particular interest in the Caucasus for quite some time. Until the mid-1990s, it concentrated on the Balkans. Then the list of problems with “Europe’s powder keg” grew even longer due to the discussion of prospects for NATO enlargement (the fourth addition of new members since the formation of the Alliance occurred on March 12, 1999, and the fifth came on March 29, 2004).

Since Bulgaria and Romania joined NATO in March 2004, the Trans-Caucasian region has been perceived as the new Black Sea frontier of the entire European security system. Moreover, Turkey, an influential member of the Alliance with the second largest army of all NATO countries, showed its interest in the region.

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Ankara partnered with Azerbaijan, its strategic ally and Armenia’s adversary, and Turkey’s relations with Russia that had their ups and downs since the 1990s years have deteriorated dramatically over the past two years.

Currently, NATO is interested in the Caucasus as a strategically important energy market, a lucrative traffic artery with access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia, and a region bordering with Iran. Moreover, Brussels takes notice of Russia’s high activity in the area, but tends to overlook Moscow’s actions on deescalating ongoing regional conflicts and, instead, focuses on the threat of Russia establishing its hegemony over the post-Soviet space.

In this context, the famous American diplomat and expert Ronald Asmus’ assessment of the 5-Day War of 2008 [The Russian-Georgian war that lasted from August 7-12, 2008 – Editor’s note] is very telling. He believes that the conflict “was not fought over territory, minority rights or the future status of the separatist provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia… But the root cause of this war was geopolitical. Georgia was determined to go to the West and Russia was determined to stop it from doing so.” (Source: Ronald Asmus, “A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West”)

Indeed, it would be incorrect to use Asmus’ final statement to interpret all NATO activity in the Caucasus exclusively as the manifestation of the interests harbored by the U.S. and its military allies. Every country of the region had its reasons for building a relationship with the Alliance. It would be naïve to presume that the choice came down to democracy and the system of values.

Reaction to NATO within the post-Soviet space

After their defeat in the ethno-political conflicts of the early 1990s and the loss of control over contested territories, Georgia and Azerbaijan saw NATO as a way to counter Russian influence. At the same time, both Tbilisi and Baku sought Moscow’s support. For example, in 1993-94, Georgian leadership decided to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and agreed to Russia’s military presence on its territory (outside of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). In 1996, both Russia and Georgia introduced sanctions against Sukhumi through the CIS Council.

As for Armenia, when facing the land blockade from Turkey and Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Yerevan started to view the Western direction of its policy as a compensating factor. Armenia did have other reasons as well. Yerevan wanted to block Baku from being the only Caucasian state considered for the NATO membership, especially since Azerbaijan got actively involved in efficient energy cooperation with the West in 1994. Armenia’s partnership with the Alliance was meant to prevent Brussels from making the ultimate choice between the two warring nations.

In 2007-08, NATO’s response to the request for the “internationalization” of the region created extremely high (and topically unfounded) expectations among Trans-Caucasian elites, especially in Georgia. These expectations were based on misjudged calculations and undervaluation of the relations between Russia and the West, as well as problems with Iran, Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism.

This lapse in judgment led to the overstated perception of NATO’s potential ability to keep the peace. Consequently, these expectations were let down by the Alliance’s actual conduct towards Russia during the war of 2008, when Georgia suffered its major military and political defeat since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. NATO showed the Caucasus that it was not going to war with Russia over Georgia’s territorial integrity.

The message rang clear to Azerbaijan, which then diversified its foreign policy and joined the Non-Aligned Movement in May 2011, and Armenia, which opted for Eurasian integration.

At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO provided Georgia and Ukraine with the opportunity to join the Alliance, but it did not result in the acceleration of integration processes. NATO was all talk promising Georgia the sun and the moon, announcing new phases and stages of its integration, and even coming up with the creative label of an “aspirant country” just for Georgia.

During his 2012 visit to Tbilisi, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO General Secretary at the time, declared that the Trans-Caucasian country was as close to the Alliance as ever. In April 2014, at the session of the Georgia-NATO commission, the “aspirant” was referred to as the “example for the entire region” and the “exporter of security.” Still, so far Georgia has not even obtained the Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, which is the penultimate step on the path to becoming a NATO member.

According to experienced Georgian diplomat Tedo Japaridze, former minister of foreign affairs and secretary of the Security Council of Georgia, who is currently serving as the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on International Affairs, “We have a long-standing relationship with NATO. Everyone knows that Georgia will not become an MAP at the Warsaw Summit. This decision has already been made. But it is necessary to point out that MAP is an instrument that ties us to NATO.”

Under these circumstances, naturally there are politicians who are skeptical about Georgia’s prospects for cooperation with the West. For example, Gogi Topadze, the leader of the Industrial Party, states that, “It is abundantly clear that we can kiss NATO goodbye. Did NATO interfere in the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Or the war in Ukraine?”

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The importance of American influence

Inside the Alliance itself, in spite of America’s dominance, there is no agreement on accepting new members. That is especially true of the so-called “old Europe,” which includes Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands. However, Washington’s foreign policy (as opposed to the integration project) could not care less for the opinion of its resilient German or French allies.

Of course, the U.S. establishment in the White House, Department of State and Congress must consider the consequences of risking confrontation with Russia by converting its neighboring former Soviet republics into instruments for containing “re-Sovietization” or curbing the Kremlin’s “imperial ambitions.”

In any case, Washington is reluctant to cede the post-Soviet space and acknowledge it as Moscow’s geopolitical domain, so attempts at cooperating with the former Soviet republics come not just from NATO, but also from the White House.

It is also important to remember that over the years of its NATO membership, the U.S. has accumulated extensive experience in bilateral cooperation with countries that for some reason (political, geographic, etc.) could not join the Alliance, as was the case with Franco's Spain, Israel, Japan, and some Latin American countries. Following suit, after the Ukrainian crisis, Washington prepared a series of laws aimed at “including” several post-Soviet states, such as Georgia, in the push for the defense of territorial integrity and sovereignty. The most vivid example of such legal action is the Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014, which extended the offer of U.S. assistance not only to Kiev, but also Tbilisi.

However, the efficiency of the above-mentioned steps meant to ensure Georgia’s integrity and tackle such security issues as defense against radical jihadist groups (which Tbilisi unfortunately already encountered in the Pankisi Gorge) remains to be seen. It is one thing to act as an aide to a global superpower in the desire to “contain” Russia and a completely different matter to get actual support in fighting against emerging risks.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.