A Common European Defence Policy may realise Georgia’s NATO ambitions

A Common European Defence Policy may realise Georgia’s NATO ambitions

Since the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008, Moscow has compromised the territorial integrity of Georgia through its occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite NATO’s concerns that offering a Membership Action Plan would provoke a strong Russian reaction, the Kremlin continues to threaten the integrity of the Georgian state in the use of disinformation campaigns and frustrates Tbilisi’s progress towards achieving NATO accession.

The failure of some EU member states to meet the 2% defence spending commitment required by NATO membership leaves Georgia in an increasingly vulnerable position. Division within the bloc over the response to Russia following the Annexation of Crimea in 2014 means that the EU has yet to formalise a policy consensus on defence and security. Increasing EU capabilities in this area may hold the key to enhancing Georgia’s resilience against Moscow and eventual accession to NATO membership. 

The threat facing Georgia since 2008

At the Bucharest Summit in 2008, NATO members agreed that they should not grant a Membership Action Plan for Georgia in fear that it would provoke a strong Russian reaction. Despite NATO’s precaution, Russia still remains a threat to its security.

Twelve years on from the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russia remains in violation of international law by compromising Georgia’s territorial integrity. Moscow maintains a military presence in the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and pursues a borderization policy that fines individuals for making ‘illegal border crossings’. Russia’s plan to deploy anti-aircraft missile batteries within its Southern Military Command also demonstrates Putin’s intention to cement Russian presence in Georgian airspace. 

Moscow also entrenches its hold over Georgia’s political system through unconventional forms of warfare, such as disinformation campaigns. Georgia’s multi-ethnic population makes it particularly prone to destabilisation from Russian disinformation. During the 2020 parliamentary elections in Georgia, Russia conducted a disinformation campaign to deliberately revive Georgia’s border dispute with Azerbaijan. After failing to use the maps of the 1936-38 Georgia-Azerbaijan borders in the border case against Baku, which were reportedly obtained by Russian security services, the Defence Ministry was investigated by the Prosecutor-General. Concerns that the inquiry was politically motivated to favour the ruling party, Georgian Dream, exposed the threat the Kremlin poses to the democratic process. In demonstrating Georgia’s resilience against such disinformation capabilities, the Georgian National Security Council stressed peaceful coexistence with the ethnic Azerbaijani and Armenian population in the country.

It is therefore clear that Russia continues to compromise the political and territorial integrity of Georgia despite NATO’s effective acquiescence to Moscow in their decision to reject Georgia’s path to membership.

European reluctance to confront Russia

The EU is currently unable to respond to Russian acts of aggression in Georgia since it lacks the capabilities and competence to act on defence and security. Instead, EU member states have been preoccupied with the issue of how the bloc should respond to Russia after the Annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

While Germany and France view EU sanctions on Russia as an impediment to improving relations after the Annexation of Crimea, the Baltic States and Poland believe that the EU needs to be far more assertive in confronting the Russian security challenge. This divergence among the EU-27 is a collective failure of the EU to act in European defence and security matters, leaving Georgia in a weak position to withstand Russia’s ability to compromise its territorial integrity and democratic process.

Rather than focusing efforts on the process of formalising a common policy on defence and security, EU member states are divided on the issue of Russia and its threat to European security. It is clear that the legacy of the Second World War still weighs heavily on the level of attachment EU member states place on defence spending. 

Poland and the Baltic States, both of which fell under Soviet occupation in 1939 until the collapse of communism, are forecasted to meet the 2% NATO defence spending requirement. However, Germany’s emphasis on dialogue with Russia since the Annexation of Crimea (2014) shows that Berlin’s efforts to normalise relations with Moscow in the postwar period remains influential in its foreign policy.

In fear of a confrontation with Russia, the EU decided to opt for the soft German position rather than risking a hostile approach as advocated by Eastern European member states. For example, Brussels included Moscow in the implementation process of a trade agreement with Kyiv as part of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU. There are also calls for a lifting of EU sanctions on Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agree that putting pressure on the Russian economy is achieving little progress in improving East-West relations. 

However, EU member states in close proximity to Russia’s borders are now calling for the bloc to invest in defence and security matters and address the Russian threat. Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, states that the EU should take responsibility over managing external threats, particularly when Washington has ‘pivoted East’ to focus on China. Additionally, Sweden’s recent bolstering of its armed forces in response to Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea calls into question whether the EU should expand its defence and security capabilities to confront Russia.

How an EU policy on defence and security could enhance Georgian resilience

While the EU-27 are without a formalised policy consensus on defence and security, the security vacuum allows Russia to frustrate Georgia’s NATO accession. Along with sending advanced military equipment sent to Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, Russia deployed the next-generation S-400 missile system in Crimea according to the Georgian foreign minister David Zalkaliani. Although the EU has a monitoring mission in Georgia, it is unable to withstand Russian militarisation within and in close proximity to Georgia’s borders. This makes it harder for Tbilisi to fulfil the key NATO admission criteria of resolving ethnic or territorial disputes.

To confront the hard security presence of Russia in the Black Sea region, the EU may need to reconsider its approach based on dialogue. If the EU-27 can reconcile its currently divergent approaches in their individual responses to Russia after the Annexation of Crimea and find a policy consensus on defence and security-related matters, Georgia would be able to enhance its resilience.

It is clear that the threat Russia poses to Georgia since 2008 demonstrates the shortcomings of an uncoordinated EU approach to defence and security matters. Before Russia intervened in Georgia, EU engagement in the South Caucasus was practically non-existent: its main foreign policy instrument, the Eastern Partnership, did not possess the necessary capabilities to manage conflict. Since the 2008 invasion, there have been calls for the EU to adopt a strategy to counter Russian influence in the Black Sea region through re-energizing peace negotiations and supporting economic projects. As the situation stands, the absence of a common EU defence and security approach leaves Georgia’s NATO accession process in stasis.

The current NATO-driven strategy, which focuses on implementing reforms and enhancing cooperation, struggles to confront the reality of Russia’s military influence in the Black Sea and South Caucasus post-2014. There is yet to be a guarantee on NATO accession despite Tbilisi’s participation in the NATO military mission in Afghanistan and the commitments to reform under the pro-Western presidency of Salome Zourabichvili. Moreover, support of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia is limited since it is not allowed to enter the occupied territories nor is it able to block Russia’s borderization policy

However, the EU could step in and play a major role in driving Georgia’s NATO accession process. The bloc could utilise funding in security cooperation under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to equip Georgia with enhanced defence capabilities against Russian incursions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A resolution of Georgia’s territorial disputes would mark a major step towards NATO membership. Furthermore, one EU capability that would help protect Georgia from Russian disinformation is a commitment to provide technical support on intelligence-gathering. If the EU takes collective policy action on Georgia’s resilience against Russian aggression, NATO would also be freed up to address Russia’s military actions in the Black Sea. 

As long as EU member states remain divided on the approach to relations with Russia, Moscow will keep finding ways to frustrate Georgia’s progress on its path to NATO accession. However, if the EU-27 can find a way to reconcile their differences and reach a policy consensus on defence and security, Georgia will be able to progress in joining the Euro-Atlantic fold.

Categories: Europe, Security

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