The Trump administration's foreign policy has been, to put it mildly, unpredictable. But when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Georgia, both sides strove to pretend that everything was normal.
Pence, the most senior Trump administration official to visit the region, stopped August 1 in Tbilisi on a geopolitically themed trip that also included stops in Estonia and Montenegro. In Georgia, his public remarks repeated longstanding US positions on Georgia: promoting individual liberty; supporting its aspirations to join NATO; and condemning Russian aggression and the “occupation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two parts of Georgia under the control of Russia-backed unrecognized authorities.
“The strategic partnership between the United States and Georgia is stronger now than ever before,” Pence asserted at a military exercise involving US, Georgian, and other allied troops.
“President Donald Trump sent me here with a simple message for you, and for the people of Georgia: We’re with you. We stand with you,” he said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
The massive fanfare surrounding the visit – with American flags blanketing Tbilisi, much of the center of the city closed to traffic, and television news dominated by Pence – was somewhat out of proportion with what might be expected from a vice presidential visit. “The level of celebration in Tbilisi for Pence’s visit shows how desperate Georgians are, I think, and how much they want to see that they are not alone,” said Olesya Vartanyan, a Tbilisi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Both ordinary Georgians and government officials have been alarmed of late at the declining attention paid by the West to Georgia’s simmering conflict with Russia, Vartanyan said. “Georgians are trying to see support that they want so much.”
Georgia does not appear to be a high priority for the Trump administration. Kvirikashvili visited Washington in May and got a meeting with Pence and a handshake photo op with Trump. But the administration’s proposed budget for next year intends to slash aid for Georgia by more than half, including eliminating nearly all of its military aid.
Trump has helped foster uncertainty by exhibiting an eagerness to get along with Georgia’s archenemy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has not expressed much enthusiasm about NATO.
Nevertheless, Georgia’s government has been determined to look on the bright side, cheered by moves such as Trump’s decision to attack Syrian government forces, which are backed by Russia, with cruise missiles.
Pence’s visit “is a significant message,” Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze said. “We have seen an unprecedented support from President Trump and his administration, as well as from the political communities of Washington in this direction.”
Kvirikashvili deftly sidestepped questions about the Trump administration’s relationship to Russia. When an American reporter at the joint news conference teed up a softball question for him, asking about alleged Russian interference in the presidential election and what lessons Georgia could teach the US about Moscow’s meddling, Kvirikashvili did not swing. “With our excellent intelligence capabilities, we were not able to detect any interference,” he said. “The American nation has made its decision.”
Pomp aside, it was not clear what the substance of the visit was. No agreements were signed or deals announced.
Ahead of the visit, a coalition of non-governmental organizations wrote an open letter to Pence, asking him to address a number of issues that they said “threaten to undermine [Georgia’s] democratic achievements of recent years.” Those included a controversial rewriting of the constitution, government control over the judicial system and police abuses.
Pence did not address any of those issues in his public remarks. He did meet with members of the political opposition, who said afterwards that they discussed several of those problems with him. They also said they raised the issue of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is in stateless limbo in the United States after being stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship last week.
The day Pence arrived in Georgia, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon had prepared a proposal to arm Ukraine with anti-tank missiles and other weaponry. Georgia has long sought a similar deal with the United States, and many in Tbilisi were cheered by the Ukrainian report. “I hope to see a dialogue get started about selling Georgia anti-tank and anti-aircraft defensive weapons, like Ukraine,” said Daniel Kochis, a Europe policy specialist at the Washington, DC think tank Heritage Foundation, in an interview with Voice of America.
Pence did appear to allude to that in his speech at the military exercise, but only vaguely: “We will continue to work with Georgia to reduce your vulnerabilities and counter potential Russian aggression.”
After years of Georgian and Ukrainian lobbying, in vain, to be allowed to buy anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry, the mood in Washington may be shifting. “Unlike a few years ago, when this political battle was lost by the more hawkish voices in DC, today I suspect they will win and the United States will supply weapons to Ukraine, even though the conflict is no longer in a phase where they can make meaningful impact,” said Michael Kofman, a fellow specializing in Russian military affairs at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
And, he added, “if Ukraine gets weapons, then there is a strong likelihood of Georgia also receiving them, even though it’s unclear what particular events or policies such transfers are tied to.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet.org, and author of The Bug Pit. He is based in Istanbul.