Georgian officials are lauding the recent release of a staff report prepared by a senior US senator's office that urges Washington to consider a resumption of arms sales to Tbilisi. Meanwhile, the separatist entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, together with Russia, have reacted with alarm to the report, claiming that easing Tbilisi's access to arms would increase the chances of a renewed outbreak of fighting in the region.
The US government has not provided weapons to Georgia since that country's disastrous 2008 conflict with Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The report, called Striking the Balance: US Policy and Stability in Georgia, was prepared by the staff of Sen. Richard Lugar, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The carefully worded document does not directly recommend that the United States or NATO rearm Georgia, but it does state that Russian pressure on potential arms suppliers has resulted in a "de facto arms embargo" against Tbilisi.
"The United States Government should ... work with NATO allies in crafting a comprehensive, transparent approach to security assistance and military sales in the region. While Georgia has encountered great difficulty in procuring equipment from NATO countries to provide for its basic territorial defense needs, some allies have pursued significant military deals with Russia that could upset the military balance," the report asserted.
"The United States and NATO allies must reconcile a policy that leaves a dedicated NATO partner unable to provide for its basic defense requirements. These efforts will be most effective if they are undertaken on a multilateral basis. The Alliance must come to grips with the reality that Georgia will require coordinated security support from America and European nations for some years to come," the report said.
Failing to do so, the report added, could result in "an excessive nationalization of Georgian defense policy."
Since the 2008 war, the United States has allocated $1 billion in aid to help Georgia with reconstruction and social needs. But none of that aid has been military-related. Last summer, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili asked Washington to provide his country with "defensive" weapons, including air-defense and anti-tank hardware. At that time, US officials issued a fast and firm denial of the request. Celeste Wallander, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Policy, said; "the United States . . . does not believe Georgia is ready for that kind of defense acquisition."
US Marines are currently training Georgian soldiers for deployment to Afghanistan, but that program is focused on tactics, and does not include the provision of any new equipment.
"It's good to work on training and intellectual capacity, but there is still a means issue," said Col. Jon Chicky, an expert on post-Soviet issues at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. "The NATO alliance isn't that interested in providing the physical means - anti-armor, air defense - to Georgia, and the alliance members are all over the map. The Baltic states and former Warsaw Pact states are more inclined to support it, and the further West you go you get less support."
The problem, Chicky said, is that US equipment is too expensive and more technologically advanced than Georgia needs. Russian equipment is better suited for the Georgian military, but the countries in a position to provide that equipment, mainly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, tend to be susceptible to Russian pressure.
"I don't know if the Georgians are under an 'arms embargo' like they claim, but if they try to buy defensive capabilities - air defense, anti-armor, things like that - and countries decide not to provide it to them, then what's the next step? How is Georgia's security going to be ensured if they don't have the means to defend themselves?" Chicky asked. [Editor's Note: Chicky stressed that he was expressing his personal views, and that they did not necessarily represent the official position of the National Defense University, the Pentagon or the US Government].
The Pentagon budget for the next fiscal year is being finalized and will be released soon, but it is not believed to contain any new money for arming Georgia, according to Chicky and Georgian diplomats in Washington.
Representatives of the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, interviewed via email, complained that the authors of the Senate report never contacted them for their input. They painted a rearmed Georgia as a threat to regional stability.
"We think the result could be more violence, not less," said David Sanakoev, a senior policy adviser to South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity. "President Saakashvili has said he would only use new weapons for defensive purposes, but some of the weapons he is seeking can also be used offensively. Saakashvili has already illegally attacked South Ossetia with weapons he received from NATO countries as was validated by the EU report. His past behavior gives us no reason to trust him."
Security experts in Tbilisi argue that a strong Georgian military offers the best bet for future stability in the region. "Years of experience has shown that any hesitation with regards [to] deepening cooperation on defense and security matters of any sort (for example failure to extend a [NATO Membership Action Plan] to Georgia) has been understood [in Moscow] not as a compromise, but as invitation for 'action,'" said Giorgi Kandelaki, the deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee."
"This pattern has been stated many times openly in the mainstream and open Russian political discourse and has been consistently proven with regards to Russian attitudes with any of its neighbors whose sovereignty it resents," Kandelaki continued. [Editor's note: Giorgi Kandelaki is a former EurasiaNet editorial associate].