Tbilisi Pressing Washington to OK Defense Purchases
After initially expressing concern about Washington’s desire to “reset,” relations with Moscow, officials in Georgia are taking a more positive public stance. During the summer, for example, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili lauded the United States for treating Georgia “exactly the right way,” adding that the reset is “not just changing relations with Russia at the expense of the others.”
Privately, however, Georgian officials remain concerned. Some are complaining that the United States, wary of offending Russia, has been blocking sales of defense equipment from US companies to Georgia. And lobbyists for Tbilisi are currently working behind the scenes to urge US officials to approve weapons sales to Georgia.
The United States, while it has conducted several training programs with Georgian troops, has never been a large arms provider to Tbilisi. But what little defense trade did exist has halted since the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Saakashvili has publicly asked Washington to provide Georgia with “defensive” weapons, including anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades, but US officials have repeatedly said that they don't intend to do that. “Georgia is not ready for the kind of weapons acquisitions that the president [Saakashvili] floated,” said Celeste Wallander, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Policy, last year. “In the future, that's not off the table, but certainly the United States … does not believe Georgia is ready for that kind of defense acquisition.” [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
In recent months, the Georgian government has been carrying out a delicate balancing act, criticizing what they describe as a “de facto” arms embargo, while trying to not be publicly perceived as complaining about it.
When speaking publicly, Saakashvili addresses the issue with the greatest of care. For example, he told Newsweek, in an interview published September 12; “Leaving Georgia defenseless doesn’t help the situation. Georgia can’t attack Russia, while a defenseless Georgia is a big temptation for Russia to change our government through military means. … As part of ongoing security cooperation, we hope that the United States will help us with defense-weapons capabilities.”
Behind closed doors, Georgian officials use stronger language, saying that not only does Washington not provide military aid, but that the State Department – which has to approve any commercial sale of military equipment abroad – has effectively blocked any such sales by US companies to Georgia, even of non-lethal equipment. “The United States even prohibits the sale to us of blank ammunition to be used for training. Obviously, pushing the 'reset' button with Russia is more important than our military being allowed to even prepare to defend ourselves,” an unnamed Georgian official told Jane's Defence Weekly for a story published in June.
The issue is a sensitive one for both sides. Officials from the Georgian Ministry of Defense, the Georgian Embassy in Washington, the State Department and the Pentagon declined to address the issue when queried by EurasiaNet.org. And even those who closely follow Georgian issues in Washington don't know what the State Department policy is. But there is a common belief inside the Beltway that the State Department is “slow-rolling” requests for permits to arms sales to Georgia, by neither approving or denying them, said Cory Welt, associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. “Requests that come in for approval to Georgia just sit. So the policy is to have no policy.”
In a September 15 interview with the Interfax news agency, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked about US arms sales to Georgia, and responded that Washington was "careful" in its security assistance to Georgia. "Every sovereign country has the right to provide for its own defense. We have been, I think, careful in what we have provided to Georgia. We also are interested in providing Georgia with the means by which they can help us in Afghanistan, and so a good part of the training and other things that we‘re doing with the Georgians are because they have been so willing to make a contribution of considerable importance to our efforts in Afghanistan," Gates said. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The notion that an effective arms embargo against Tbilisi is in place is promoted by a lobbying and public relations firm hired by the Georgian National Security Council, Orion Strategies. Orion is owned by Randy Scheunemann, a foreign policy adviser to John McCain's 2008 Republican presidential campaign and now a foreign policy adviser to former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. McCain is known as a strong ally of Georgia and has emerged as a leading critic of the Obama administration's Russia policy.
“The administration has appeared more eager to placate an autocratic Russia than to support a friendly Georgian democracy living under the long shadow of its aggressive neighbor,” McCain wrote in a recent editorial in the Washington Post. “Georgia is doing more fighting in Afghanistan than much of the NATO alliance it wishes to join. Yet it has been a struggle to get the administration to provide Georgian troops heading into combat even basic equipment, armored vehicles and replacement parts.”
Orion provided EurasiaNet.org with examples of four defense deals between US companies and Georgia that it claimed were blocked by the State Department. Two of the companies involved, General Dynamics and AM General, declined to comment. But officials from the other two companies said that the account provided by Orion was not correct, and that the State Department did not block the sale.
“We haven't received any purchase orders from the country of Georgia,” said James Battaglini, a retired three-star Marine Corps general who is now chief operating officer of Colt Defense, manufacturer of the M4 rifle. Whatever initial consultations that Colt may have had with Georgia did not get far enough along to require State Department approval, Battaglini said: “We don't even submit for an export license unless we have a purchase order.”
Another company, Arms Tech, had been preparing to manufacture Claymores, a command-detonated land mine, for Georgia, said Joseph Rustick, the company's president. However, Rustick said that deal was scotched when an Israeli middleman who had brokered the purchase, Ofer Paz, was indicted by US federal prosecutors for allegedly taking part in a scheme to bribe Georgia Ministry of Defense officials to accept inflated prices for ammunition and military food.
Arms Tech's Claymore deal was under review at the State Department when Paz was indicted, Rustick said, and he got a letter, dated March 19, 2010, saying; “While no fault of your own, you should be aware that while your request was undergoing a policy review, the foreign co-signee on the license, Paz Logistics, became subject to a US policy of denial.”
Rustick said that he then approached Georgian defense officials directly, offering to sell them Claymores without the middleman. “From their side I got an unofficial 'we're not interested,'” he said. Rustick said he remained interested in selling weapons to Georgia: “I have an ax to grind – my grandfather was Shanghaied into the tsar's army. So it's a family thing.”
It's not clear that even if the United States wanted to sell weapons to Georgia that it would have much effect on the balance of forces in the region. For one, American weapons are expensive, and Georgia's defense budget has declined by half from 2008 to 2010. And Russia's military is so much more powerful than Georgia's that even if Tbilisi were able to buy all the weapons it wanted, the Georgian military would still be badly overmatched in any fight against Russia.
But Georgia's aim may not be to defeat a possible Russian attack, but merely to hold off Russian forces long enough to allow foreign diplomats to get involved and convince Russia to call off a blitz. Saakashvili's aims may also be more psychological than military. Arms sales from the United States would constitute a concrete show of American support for Georgia, said Lawrence Sheets, the Tbilisi-based director of the International Crisis Group Caucasus Project. That was the case with the M4-type rifles acquired from the US company Bushmaster before the war with Georgia. “They bought the M4s for ideological reasons, because they associate the AK-47s with the Soviet Union,” Sheets said. “It was Misha's [Saakashvili’s] decision.”
And even making the attempt will help him maintain morale domestically, Sheets added. “How do you explain to your army that you're not even going to try to procure weaponry which will defend you in case of an attack?”
Saakashvili's positive, public statements about the reset are not what he truly believes, Sheets contended. “He has to say that for political reasons.” Privately, Sheets added, he “complains that the Americans refuse to sell him defensive weapons.”
Meanwhile, Russian officials, most recently Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have taken the opposite tack and repeatedly blamed the United States for supposedly rearming Georgia. “I can see, the present US administration's intentions to improve relations with Russia can be altogether precisely tracked. But there is something else too. For example, the continued rearming of Georgia is underway. Why? Well, it is certainly real. We can see, after all, if there had been no rearmament two years ago, there would have been no aggression or the blood that was shed there either,” Putin said in an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant on August 30. “Now the rearmament continues.”
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.