A View from Tbilisi: Are the Euro-Atlantic Partners Ready to Accept Russia’s Notion of a ‘Near Abroad’?

NATO summits are filled with Georgian expectations. The Warsaw Summit in July of 2016 is no exception. Since the Bucharest Summit (2008), Georgia’s engagement with NATO has seemed to gravitate around the theme of a Membership Action Plan (MAP) as a prelude to NATO membership. The discussion itself is perhaps too focused on Georgia, when the broader question at hand relates to European and Euro-Atlantic security from the wider Black Sea/Caspian area to the Baltics, i.e., the vast space bordering Russia.

There is little doubt that Russia must be engaged. Europe’s security architecture hinges on constructive cooperation with Russia. But such engagement cannot be founded on a narrative of historical revisionism, which qualifies the sovereignty of states as more or less acceptable depending on how “post-Soviet” they are. In Russia’s worldview, the term “post-Soviet” refers to a European continent divided in zones of “near,” “middle,” or “further” abroad. A Europe with states whose sovereignty is qualified on the basis of their proximity to Russia is not safe in any shape or form.

Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations in context

By raising the issue of a MAP, the discussion focuses too narrowly on how ready Georgia really is for NATO membership. As a result of successive Annual National Programs, dedicated NATO-Georgia Committee work, and the Wales Summit decisions on Georgia in 2014, no one really doubts that Tbilisi meets MAP benchmarks. It is then counterproductive to focus the discussion on “Georgia’s homework.” The Georgian public needs to be reassured that Georgia remains on a Euro-Atlantic track and progress to this effect has been made.

A more constructive discussion is how NATO projects a vision of security that is reassuringly and assertively inclusive of Georgia.

In Russia’s worldview, former Soviet republics make an organic whole with their former “Soviet/Russian imperial motherland,” leaving little room for notions of “neighborhood” or “cooperative partnership,” let alone a shared one. Georgia’s sovereignty is qualified as instrumental or not to the security, stability, and development of Russia.

How Russia responds to those who question its “historical rights” is clear. In addressing former Soviet Republics, Russia “disciplines” states through migrant pogroms in the streets of Moscow, trade sanctions, cyberattacks, energy cuts, and then more drastic measures. In the Donbass, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, Russia deploys “polite green men,” volunteer non-soldiers on holiday, and “cyber crews,” blurring the distinction between soldier and civilian, war and peace. Thereon Russia emerges as a peculiar “peace keeper” (or is it a “piece keeper”?) grabbing chunks of territory of currently independent and sovereign neighbors.  

NATO’s strategy in context

Envisaging a security architecture that would include Russia, NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security in 1997; in 2002 they upgraded that relationship, creating the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). In the Founding Act, NATO pledged to “carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” The dynamic of the relationship between Russia and the Alliance is changing. A recent Pew Center study indicates that publics across Alliance member states distrust and fear Russia as a national security threat. This perception is more so in countries that joined the Alliance after 1997.

There is good reason for this distrust. It should be recalled that the Founding Act entailed another commitment, namely that “Russia will exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe.” NATO sees Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and therefore Georgia, as a unilateral suspension of the treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. In response to the heightened sense of insecurity, but without wanting to make the cleavage between NATO and Russia unbridgeable, Euro-Atlantic partners at the Wales Summit committed to a two-pronged strategy: first, affirm readiness to implement Article V through a Readiness Action Plan (RAP) and then reengage Russia to deescalate tensions.

RAP entails a series of exercises that maintain a military presence in the region whilst upholding 1997 commitments. The message emanating from these exercises should be clear: Russia must not confuse the 1997 line with an indirect recognition of the notion of a “near abroad.”

On reengagement, steps are by necessity timid. According to Germany’s outgoing Ambassador to NATO, Martin Erdmann, Berlin favors reviving the NATO-Russia Council. However, NATO’s Wales Summit also made clear that “… our aspiration for partnership will be contingent on our seeing a clear, constructive change in Russia’s actions which demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities.” Reengagement is not a synonym for appeasement.

Beyond Article V

Russia is not going to be intimidated. As recession in Russia deepens, political volatility is likely to increase and there will be considerable temptation to “export” this domestic crisis though a proxy standoff with the West. In Ukraine, the Minsk agreements have been violated; in Georgia, Russia is pushing further into the country, threatening to capture critical infrastructure; in Finland and Sweden, more violations of territorial waters and airspace are reported. Besides petty political gains, Russia is strategically motivated to test red lines—without infringing directly into Article V territory—to find out whether and to what extent the notion of a “near abroad” is acceptable.

The Euro-Atlantic community must address this challenge.

Many Georgian governments have been keen supporters of détente, rapprochement, reset, and reengagement. Besides peace with Russia, the only thing Tbilisi is more enthusiastic about is Georgia’s sovereignty. Any protocol on crisis management in the region—regulating air or maritime encounters for instance—that is not clear on rules of engagements when Partnership for Peace (PfP) partners are threatened sends the wrong message.

Focusing on questions, not answers alone

Clearly, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of 2014, the vision of integrated security architecture in Europe, with Russia, cannot be achieved simply by returning to “business as usual.” Economic sanctions impress upon Russia that a rapprochement with Europe is better than the alternative. But without a convincing deterrence narrative founded on unfailing political resolve to stand together as a community, reengagement is unworkable.

Ultimately, the Warsaw Summit is about resolve and unity of purpose, projecting the message that the Euro-Atlantic community leaves no one behind, leaving little scope for Russia to assert notions of near, middle, or further abroad. If that message is clear, then reengagement is possible.

Besides affirming NATO’s Open Door policy towards Georgia in principle, for which Georgia is grateful, one must acknowledge the substance of the challenge of building a symmetrical relationship with Russia along its border. In the case of Georgia, there are two interlocking dimensions to achieving this symmetry through solidarity: one military, and the other political.

Militarily, short of Article V, one may capitalize on the Joint Training and Evaluation Center’s (JTEC) operations at different sites in Georgia in a manner that replicates ongoing NATO exercises in the Black and Baltic Seas. However, in addition to prioritizing interoperability, JTEC could also play a forward-looking role in paving the way for an enhanced niche capability. Capitalizing on the Sachkhere Mountain Training School and in cooperation with other PfP members—such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland—Georgia could focus its energy and resources developing capability that resonates with its morphology, its security challenges, and its political circumstances.  

Politically, Tbilisi is making the case for a MAP or a statement in Warsaw to the effect that Georgia is ready for NATO membership. The ultimate objective, of course, is NATO membership.

Following NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Georgia in August for the inauguration of the JTEC, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs threatened Georgia and its allies with a repeat of the 2008 conflict. It’s obvious Russia may be “crossing the line” by cutting the arterial highway that connects the eastern and western parts of Georgia. Russian tanks are only 40 km away from Tbilisi. Still, according to the polls, the citizens of Georgia—not just politicians and experts—remain committed to a Euro-Atlantic trajectory even if it is clear that no one in the West would start a war with Russia over Georgia. How the Alliance deals with Georgia’s case in Warsaw must be consistent with the response to this underlying fundamental question: “Is the claim to a near abroad legitimate?” If we accept the notion of a “lebensraum” how far back are we taking Europe, 1939 or 1914?

Fundamentally, the challenge is about “community-building,” the entrenchment of a status quo, impressing on Russia that the spirit that emanates from Article X of the Treaty of Washington is as important as Article V. The mere echo of Article X, “the Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area,” as Georgia has, is warning enough that Russia is dealing with a Euro-Atlantic community that leaves no one behind.

Tedo Japaridze is the Chairman of Foreign Relations Committee of Georgia’s Parliament. He has served as Georgia’s National Security Advisor, Foreign Minister, and Ambassador to the United States. This article expresses his personal views.

Image: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg participated in an August 27 ceremony to mark the opening of the Joint Training and Evaluation Center at the Krtsanisi military facility in Georgia. (Photo courtesy of NATO)