The United States is stepping up its military aid to Georgia as Washington searches for new ways to encourage Georgians to continue on their pro-Western path in spite of ever-receding hopes of joining NATO.
Starting next spring, US Army officers will train Georgian soldiers on defensive tactics. The new initiative, to be called the Georgia Defense Readiness Program, differs from previous American military aid programs in that it aims not to prepare Georgian troops for participation in foreign missions, in particular the coalition operation in Afghanistan, but to defend their own territory against a potential invasion.
“The point of this is to show any potential aggressor that you won't be able to just walk in here, there will be costs imposed on you,” a senior US official told Eurasianet.org, speaking on condition of anonymity.
For the last decade and a half, Georgia has done everything it could to ingratiate itself with its Western military partners. Most visibly, it has been a significant contributor to US- and NATO-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a per-capita basis, Georgia is the leading troop contributor in Afghanistan, with 871 soldiers deployed there.
“In this sense, Georgia is an example for all,” said US Defense Secretary James Mattis, meeting his Georgian counterpart Levan Izoria at the Pentagon on November 13. Thirty-two Georgians have died in Afghanistan.
The ultimate aim of these sacrifices – NATO membership for Georgia – remains as far away as ever. US officials say they worry about strengthening voices in Tbilisi that are questioning Georgia’s Western orientation. The country’s pro-Western striving has brought little benefit to date, these critics contend, adding that Tbilisi would be better off accommodating Russia’s hegemonic desires.
“As it became clear that NATO [membership] was not going to be in the near term, to put it mildly, it was getting more and more difficult to counter the accommodationist argument, that 'these guys are selling you down the river. Why are you putting all your eggs in the US basket?'” the American official said. “So we've started to emphasize more bilateral security programs and more bilateral messaging.”
In light of NATO's apparent reluctance to accept Georgia, increased US training is “a face-saving measure,” said Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics.
That strategy shift began during the last months of the Obama presidency, but it has gathered momentum under the Trump administration. In July 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry visited Tbilisi and signed a new military cooperation agreement with an increased emphasis on territorial defense and training for combat, rather than peacekeeping.
The new administration is pressing ahead with that approach, the senior American official said. “The previous administration was very skeptical of the Georgian government and very afraid of provoking Russia,” the official said. “I have to say that, in terms of actual delivery of support, it's been better under this administration.”
Many observers attribute the closer embrace of Georgia to Trump's hawkish advisers, especially Mattis but also National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker. “Mattis has more contact with Georgia, he knows post-Soviet politics, he knows Russia,” Kakachia said. “When he became head of the Pentagon, it became clear that Georgia was safe.”
The visit of Vice President Mike Pence in August also was seen in Tbilisi as a meaningful American gesture toward Georgia. “He said 'we will be with you until you get into NATO,' and that was a very, very powerful message,” the US official said.
Trump's first proposed foreign aid budget drastically cut aid to Georgia, including entirely eliminating the Foreign Military Financing money with which the United States provides funding to buy weaponry and other equipment. Since then, however, Congress has replaced most of the money that the White House budget took out. A spending bill passed in September by the Senate Appropriations Committee even increased Georgia's FMF money to $35 million in 2018 from $30 million in 2016.
“US-Georgia defense relations are advancing to a new level. The US side will allocate more than $100 million USD for defense reforms in Georgia, which will further strengthen Georgia’s defense capabilities and will deepen the existing strategic cooperation between our countries,” Izoria said ahead of his visit to Washington.
American officials said they didn't know how Izoria came to the $100 million figure, but that US military cooperation with Georgia has increased substantially. The US now holds two large military exercises per year in Georgia, and has begun to replace the Soviet-legacy Kalashnikov automatic weapons that Georgian soldiers use with American-made M240.
Under the Georgia Defense Readiness Program, between 40 and 50 American army officers at any one time will be at a training center in Eastern Georgia training Georgian troops. The program is currently scheduled to run for three years and train nine battalions. That will supplement the Georgia Deployment Program, under which about 80 US Marines are based in Georgia to train Georgian troops before they are sent to Afghanistan.
One long-sought element of U.S. military aid remains out of Georgia's reach, at least for now. Georgia has for years asked the US to help it acquire modern anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry, particularly Javelin missiles, which Tbilisi says will be essential to defending against any potential Russian attack. The US has yet to approve those transfers, but the new focus on territorial defense has raised Georgian hopes.
“Trump is more uninhibited, he's making it impossible to predict what he will do,” said Irakli Aladashvili, a Georgian defense analyst, in an interview with RFE/RL. “So Georgia could get these weapons. Even more so if these battalions are retrained well, and are able to effectively use Javelins or other anti-tank weapons.”
The new training program “shows the seriousness of the US approach in strengthening Georgia's defense capabilities,” said David Sikharulidze, a former Georgian defense minister, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. “In the last few years it has been somehow put aside, and now it's getting revitalized.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.