The United States is practicing how quickly it can deploy its military to Georgia in order to respond to "Russian aggression," Georgia's defense minister has said.
General Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, visited Tbilisi and spoke September 7 at a conference, "Georgia: Europe’s New Geopolitical Landscape: Security, Economic Opportunity, Freedom and Human Dignity for the Frontline States." Hodges also met with Minister of Defense Tinatin Khidasheli and senior Georgian military officials.
"There were a lot of interesting nuances when he discussed joint Georgian-American exercises," Khidasheli said after the meeting. "In particular, one of the objectives of these exercises will be to see how quickly the US military vehicles and soldiers will arrive in Georgia in case of aggression – something that the General stated publicly.”
"For me, as Defence Minister, General Ben Hodges’ speech was very interesting. He made some interesting points, especially when talking about Russia,” she continued. "He very clearly and directly said that Russia had been busy with aggression for 20 years. I think when an American General says such phrases, it means a lot.”
However, it's not clear exactly what Hodges' words were. The press office of U.S. Army Europe, asked by The Bug Pit to clarify Hodges's remarks, provided a transcript of his answers to reporters' questions at the conference, but they contained nothing about U.S. forces responding to Russian aggression in Georgia.
According to a report on the website civil.ge, Hodges's remarks were somewhat vaguer:
Speaking about the joint U.S.-Georgian military exercises, Noble Partner, which were held at the Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi in May, he said that “quantity” and “frequency” of the U.S. troops’ participation in such drills is increasing.
He said that such drills aim to demonstrate the U.S. “commitment” to Georgia and also to see “how fast” the U.S. troops can move to different parts of Europe.
The question of what the U.S. would do in case of another outbreak of fighting between Georgia and Russia is an extremely sensitive one. Misunderstandings about the level of U.S. dedication to Georgia's defense likely contributed to Georgian miscalculations in the 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia. As Tom de Waal wrote in 2013:
Although Americans and Georgians had adopted the habit of using the word “ally” to refer to each other, there was never a formal alliance between the two countries. Saakashvili allowed his judgment to be skewed by his glowing testimonials from the Bush White House.
Saakashvili's miscalculations were tragically exposed in August 2008, when war broke out with Russia over Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia. We now know that the war was triggered by Saakashvili's decision to attack the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali in a doomed attempt to reconquer the province by force, only to provoke a massive -- and well-prepared -- Russian assault on his country. Saakashvili probably believed that if he captured Tskhinvali, the United States would back him against Russia. In an interview with the BBC about the war, he tried to explain his reasoning: “Hopefully the international community would wake up and see -- we concentrate efforts, we get some kind of reversal.” We have yet to learn whether this was a blind guess or based on private assurances from supporters in Washington. Certainly, senior officials told him not to try the military option. Back in 2005, Bush himself had told Saakashvili that if he went to war with Russia, “the U.S. cavalry isn't coming over the horizon.” And once the war was underway, the United States duly did nothing to intervene.
Is the U.S. sending mixed signals again? Earlier this year, the U.S. Army did practice for the first time shipping Bradley Fighting Vehicles across the Black Sea from Bulgaria to Georgia. And Irakli Aladashvili, Georgia's leading military analyst, argues that the U.S. is sincere in its intentions to defend Georgia.
"When the official program of an exercise is to test the speed of responding to aggression, that in and of itself is a very serious political-military move," he told Russian newspaper Kommersant. "The Americans are already testing that possibility not theoretically, on paper, but in practice. And they don't consider it necessary to hide the real purpose of the maneuvers ... the events in Ukraine have convinced the Americans of the need to act."
It's far from clear that the U.S. would act in case of another war. In the face of plenty of evidence of Russian involvement in Ukraine, the U.S. has been reluctant to send weaponry, let alone its own troops. Would it act any differently in Georgia? And more importantly, do strategists in Moscow and Tbilisi think it would act any differently?