Georgian NATO Cooperation Laid Low By Chicken Pox

Georgian soldiers take part in Exercise Noble Partner with the U.S. and UK in May 2016. (photo: U.S. Army)

Georgia has had to drop out of large-scale NATO military exercises because some of the soldiers slated to go were diagnosed with chicken pox. 

This might not be a particularly newsworthy development for most countries but for Georgia, whose NATO membership aspirations are the foundation of its foreign policy, the episode has been controversial and embarrassing. Speculation arose that the chicken pox was just a cover story for Georgia's cold feet and fear of offending Russia, which government officials quickly tried to tamp down. Georgia's National Security Council has promised to take up the issue at its next meeting. And the Russian press eagerly seized on the event with headlines like "In Georgia, chicken pox turns out to be stronger than NATO." 

The exercise, Anakonda 16, is taking place in Poland with 31,000 troops from 24 NATO and partner countries. NATO officials are framing the exercise as a "response to potential aggression from Russia against member states along the alliance’s eastern periphery." It will be followed by the alliance's summit in Warsaw, where the question of how to deal with Russia will be at the top of the agenda. Georgia, while not expecting to get an invitation for membership, nevertheless is hoping for "practical support" from NATO in its struggle against Russia. 

“When you talk about who is being provocative, or that sort of thing, it’s useful to remember Russia still has 7,000 soldiers occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia [in Georgia] without any legal basis and of course, they still occupy Crimea and are operating in eastern Ukraine," said United States Army General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, at the opening ceremony of the exercise.

Georgia had been planning to send a light infantry company to Anakonda 16 but in the days before the unit had to leave for Poland, several of the soldiers fell ill. “We found ourselves in a very inconvenient situation as we have been looking forward to participate in this military exercise for a long time," said Major-General Vakhtang Kapanadze, chief of general staff of the Georgian armed forces. "Georgian military unit was in full readiness to take part in the training but unfortunately, small child of a soldier got infected with chickenpox and he spread the disease in the military unit.... We all agreed to abstain from taking part in the exercise not to pose any threat to our partners and generally, to the military exercise." 

"Whatever the reason was, the story leaves an unpleasant aftertaste," said Soso Tsintsadze, former rector of the Georgian Diplomatic Academy, in an interview with Russian newspaper Vzglyad. "The biggest exercises, and we're not there."

At NATO's last summit NATO agreed to set up a training facility in Georgia; at joint U.S.-UK-Georgia exercises there last month NATO certified another company from the same battalion was ready to become part of the NATO Response Force. The company that was supposed to go to Anakonda 16 also is slated to be certified for the NATO force. It remains unclear what sort of support NATO is prepared to give Georgia at the Warsaw summit, but both sides have been suggesting that something substantial is in the works.

“I strongly believe that the summit of NATO in July will recognize the progress Georgia is making and will reiterate our strong commitment both to provide strong political support to Georgia, but also to provide practical support to Georgia, working with Georgia to implement reforms, build institutions and to enhance Georgia’s ability to modernize its armed forces,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last month.

“Indicator of success will be having more self-defense capabilities, which means being more secure and having more instruments for deterrence,” said Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli in April.

Georgian NATO Cooperation Laid Low By Chicken Pox

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