With the Georgia Association Agreement coming into force this week, Georgia relationship with Europe becomes increasingly important. What are the implications for the relationship with Russia?
Georgia, that quiet country near the Caspian Sea, is so rarely considered as an asset in geopolitics. Until the 2008 war in South Ossetia it saw little attention, much less in the context of European neighborhood security.
That same 2008 war, when Russian troops crossed the border to confront the Georgian military that were attacking pro-Russian rebels, propelled Georgia to a place of influence in the European dialogue. This week the E.U.-Georgia Association Agreement came into full force, marking a major advance in relations. The agreement, deepening relations and free trade between the E.U. and Georgia, is an indicator of Georgia’s continued willingness to lock arms with Europe, setting them further at odds with their Russian neighbor.
The agreement is but one of three major developing topics which will dictate the future of this triangle relationship: development of E.U. agreements, potential NATO membership, and Georgia’s position for the Eurasian energy transit. The three together make Georgia a country of vital importance, and its proximity to Russia makes it a pivotal point for Eurasian security.
The path to NATO membership
Of late, Russia and Georgia have both paved the way to a risky relationship, with Russia hurriedly diversifying its gas supply as Europe secures its own non-Russian Caucus supply (to be functional by 2018). It has also been outflanked on the NATO front, which was extending a membership offer to Montenegro in 2015, deeply upsetting the Russians. Georgia, in turn, has sought to increase its Russian gas purchases in 2016. These trends hearken back to a 2004-2014 Ukraine; a Ukraine who flirted with NATO and the E.U., and failed to diversify its energy supply away from Russia.
Georgia began its path to NATO membership in 2008 and was offered a future position in the alliance contingent upon its adherence to requirements. NATO took the side of Georgia in the war with Russia, citing that Moscow went beyond its responsibility to protect and violated the sovereignty of Georgian.
The Wales summit of 2014 saw further support for Georgia and strengthened its security apparatus in the face of an advancing Russia in Crimea. NATO is hesitant to advance again towards Russian borders. Yet some analyses have argued that the potential for Georgian memberships is still alive and well.
These two progressing relationships clearly indicate that Georgia is cozying up to Europe, and very arguably doing so in the face of Russian aggression. After the 2008 war, Georgia removed itself from the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and cut off all diplomatic ties with its former “mother country”. This precarious situation could spell out either trouble or opportunity for Europe, perhaps both.
In addition to its political importance, Georgia is host to numerous routes of the Southern Caucasus energy system, bringing oil and gas to Turkey and Europe from Azerbaijan. As the Southern Corridor project continues to connect Caspian energy to Europe, Georgia’s relations with both the E.U. and Russia will become increasingly important.
The similarities with Ukraine
Harkening back to Russia’s interference with Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 and Europe’s subsequent energy diversification to the Caspian region, it is possible that Europe mitigated some risk in Ukraine only to open up new risk in Georgia. That is not to say this risk is unmanageable, but it is present.
Georgia is a transit state for oil and gas, just as Ukraine. Both are former Soviet states and maintain a large population of Russian loyalists, and both have seen Russian intervention within their borders. These similarities cannot be overlooked as the future of Eurasia is considered.
If Georgia presses on with NATO membership and the government continues to implement E.U. reforms, Europe could very well see retaliation from Russia. It is unclear what these consequences would be, but past Russian action can provide some insight for the future. It is not unlikely that in the very near future, with the absence of diplomatic ties, we could see a resurgence of the violence from 2008.
The strategy for Russia in the 2014 Crimean conflict was support of Russian loyalists in Ukraine, and the same is true for Georgia. Russia will maintain a strategic interest in the loyalists of South Ossetia, continuing their support of them with or without diplomatic ties to Georgia. If relations between the two nations are not repaired, we could see a Russian movement to sustain influence in the region through military action.
Furthermore, Russia could leverage its influence in Georgia through its own gas supply to the country. 2015 saw an increase in Georgia’s plans to import Russian gas. f Russia succeeds in increasing its supply of gas to Georgia it gains a further foothold in the country’s economy, just as it has in mainland Europe.
This will most likely be the primary way Russia counters Georgian flirtation with Europe, as it is safe to say such relations will push Russia into action. It will be a delicate situation to watch, as investors and politicians monitor the development in Georgia’s relations to both Russia and Europe.