NATO is planning to increase its cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. But regional experts say that NATO is nevertheless likely to remain a marginal factor in the security and geopolitics of the Caucasus.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel originally reported NATO's plans, which then were largely confirmed by NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (available only in Azeri and Romanian). They include boosting training with all three countries, increasing the interoperability of the countries' militaries with NATO, and, in the case of Azerbaijan, helping to protect oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.
Armenia's government appreciates its cooperation with NATO both as a balance against Russia and as a way to improve its armed forces, but it's skeptical that the cooperation will amount to much, said Yerevan-based analyst Sergey Minasyan. "After the Ukrainian events ... Armenia should be worried that closer cooperation with NATO would anger Russia, especially if the West-East tensions continue," he said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "At least in the South Caucasus the West, including NATO, is too far while the 'angry Russians' are already here," he said. "If Brussels think it can offer Armenia something more serious as a real addition to the current level of security cooperation, that would be very welcomed by Yerevan, but it seems too unrealistic from here."
A Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, possibly no longer headed soon to Turkey. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Amid the continuing controversy over Turkey's selection of a Chinese company to build a sensitive air defense system, Turkey's top state defense industry official has been demoted and there are reports Ankara may be considering trying to build the whole thing itself.
Recall that the controversy began in September, when after a drawn-out competition, Turkey announced that it had chosen the Chinese HQ-9 air and missile defense system. The Chinese system was competing against ones from Russia, the U.S., and Europe, so the competition appeared to have -- rightly or wrongly -- a geopolitical component. Turkey's announcement resulted in a significant amount of U.S. and NATO pressure; Turkey's Western partners are concerned about the possibility that China could gain sensitive NATO data via the system.
Over the last month or so, there have been several indications that Turkey is rethinking its choice. Unnamed sources told the newspaper Hurriyet that the U.S. and European companies that lost out are considering changing their offer to give Turkey more of the sensitive technology involved in building the system (a key Turkish criterion for the program and one which the Chinese company, by all accounts, was best at). That also, though, would increase the price (and the Chinese system was already cheaper).
But that’s exactly how it has been perceived by Georgian Facebook and Twitter users. “Nice to know that all those people died in Afghanistan for nothing,” bristled one Facebook user, referring to the more than two dozen Georgian soldiers who have died in NATO’s Afghanistan campaign.
With experience also in Iraq and Kosovo, Georgia has supplied the largest number of troops to that operation out of any non-NATO country.
Georgia's ex-President Mikheil Saakaashvili is, by himself, controversial enough. But add two former prime ministers -- one dead, one living -- to the mix and you've got the makings of an HBO special.
The basic plot line is simple enough: busy reexamining the investigation into Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's 2005 death, the Georgian government has summoned Saakashvili, Zhvania's political ally, to Tbilisi for questioning on this and a host of other issues.
But the ex-president, now on an international circuit of advising, teaching and commenting, has refused to come, saying he smells a plot. Namely, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, to run him into the ground. And to shut him up on advising the acting Ukrainian government about how to respond to Putin's armed sally into Crimea.
"Of course, I will come to Georgia, but not now, to fulfil Putin's wishes . . ." he told Georgian TV reporters. He did not present any proof for his allegations.
In an interview published in the March 24 edition of Kviris Palitra, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili warned that if Saajashvili does not obey the summons for March 27, "he will place himself in a dire situation and even more questions will arise."
The Crimea crisis has inspired hopes for a speedier ride for Georgia to NATO membership, but the Alliance appears to be sticking to an adagio pace for now. “Georgia is not there yet,” James Appathurai, the NATO secretary general’s special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
While noting "a positive dynamic in Georgia's democratic development," he suggested staying focused on ongoing reforms that “will enable Georgia to live up to the duties resulting from the membership.”
“There cannot be shortcuts and Georgia is not seeking them,” he said.
Tbilisi, though, believes it's done the necessary homework. “Georgia is ready and deserves to move to a qualitatively higher level [of] cooperation with NATO that will be a next logical step forward in [the] NATO membership process,” Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania told EurasiaNet.org.
He argues that the country, with a change of power by election behind it, has matured politically, made an impressive contribution to the Afghanistan campaign and achieved a high level of interoperability with NATO.
From Tbilisi’s perspective, at this stage, it is all about whether NATO is ready for Georgia; not the other way round.
Fingers are crossed here in hopes to get the coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO summit this September in Wales in the United Kingdom. Apart from securing the long-wanted deterrent against Russian pressure, receiving a MAP alongside closer ties with the EU would be a major foreign policy success for the current administration.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili in Washington on February 26. (photo: U.S. State Department)
The U.S. State Department has endorsed granting Georgia its long-coveted status as an aspiring NATO member, the Membership Action Plan, on the heels of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili'shigh-profile trip to Washington. It's not clear whether this represents a substantive policy shift, but it is the first time in recent memory that the U.S. has explicitly come out in favor of MAP.
In response to a recent letter by 40 members of Congress urging the State Department to "advocate granting MAP to Georgia, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote:
We believe Georgia deserves credit at the upcoming NATO Summit for the progress it has made and its demonstrated commitment to NATO operations and standards. We stand ready to support Georgia's own efforts to build a consensus within the Alliance for granting it a Membership Action Plan.
Now, that isn't the strongest statement ever, and Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks with Gharibashvili repeated what has been the standard Washington line that "We stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions that Georgia will become a member of NATO," adding that: "The United States will work to make sure that Georgia’s progress is acknowledged by all members of this year’s NATO Summit."
(It was the 2008 Bucharest summit, recall, where NATO declined to give Georgia MAP but instead said that Georgia and Ukraine "will become members of NATO." And we see how that worked out in Ukraine...)
Georgian officials are saying -- again -- that they will make some concrete progress towards NATO integration during the alliance's next summit in Wales in September. “There is a high probability that at the next summit we will have new instruments for closer integration with NATO. Whether it will be called a MAP [Membership Action Plan] or it will be a new instrument… it has yet to be decided,” said Defense Minister Irakli Alasania in an interview with Rustavi 2 TV, reported Civil.ge. But will that help Georgia regain its lost territories?
That's what Georgia's new cabinet minister in charge of affairs in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Paata Zakareishvili, told The Bug Pit. Not because those breakaway territories want to be part of NATO, but because it would signal strength. I didn't bring up NATO in our interview, but Zakareishvili did: "We need to see very serious steps toward NATO to show Abkhazia and South Ossetia.... the European institutions should have our back, so we feel strong. It's quite clear that it's too early to talk about MAP, but there are signals... that there is progress. If we had MAP, we'd be more confident talking with the Abkhaz and Russians, we could say 'Look. we're going there anyway.'"
He continues: "NATO is not attractive [to Abkhazia] but it's the reality. Georgia is not part of any regional security organization. We left Russia's, the CIS, we don't see any prospects there. Now we're in a transitional period. We left somewhere but we haven't reached anywhere else yet. And the Abkhaz see this. And they see that nobody accepts Georgia, or didn't accept us for a long time, so what's the point of talking with Georgia? Here is Russia, which is more secure -- maybe it's not the ideal system, but it's still more secure. So why should we follow Georgia, if Georgia has no prospects? We need to show that Georgia is clearly going toward Europe."
Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (photo: NATO)
At this week's NATO foreign ministerial meetings in Brussels, the alliance's secretary general had effusive praise for aspiring member Georgia. Praising recent "free, fair and inclusive" elections, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that "Georgia serves as a model for the wider region." And in his mostly widely quoted comments, he said that "In the five years since we created the NATO-Georgia Commission, Georgia has moved closer to NATO."
As one wag on twitter put it, Rasmussen's statement could as easily have been made in 2005 or 2007 as today. And indeed there is a bit of the Zeno's paradox to Georgia's NATO progress, continually getting "closer" while seemingly having to way to actually arrive.
And trying to play the spoiler, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Brussels as well. And in a press conference there he described NATO expansion as a continuation of the Cold War. Via Civil.ge:
Lavrov said that NATO enlargement, not only in the context of Georgia but in general, represents “continuation of Soviet-old inertial logic of the ‘cold war’.”
“It implies not only preserving the dividing lines, which we have all committed to remove, but it’s also implies moving them [these lines] further to the East, which fundamentally contravenes commitments that we have undertaken at the highest level on indivisibility of security,” Lavrov said. “No one should take steps creating risks to the security of partners.”
Turkey's choice of a Chinese air defense system continues to dominate the agenda between Turkey and its Western partners in NATO. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, is in Washington this week and that issue is on the agenda. And the deal was also the hot topic at a NATO Industry Forum last week, organized by NATO and Turkey's Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, which your Bug Pit was able to attend.
If you haven't been following, the controversy began in September, when after a drawn-out competition, Turkey announced that it had chosen the Chinese HQ-9 air and missile defense system. The Chinese system was competing against ones from Russia, the U.S., and Europe, so the competition appeared to have -- rightly or wrongly -- a geopolitical component. So the pick of the Chinese system renewed fears that Turkey, under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was drifting away from the West toward the East. More specifically, NATO partners are concerned that the system won't be able to be securely integrated into the NATO air defense system in which Turkey already participates (though many in Turkey claim that is merely a pretext by Western companies and governments who resent losing business and influence to China).
As criticism from NATO allies continues to pour in, Turkey appears to be reconsidering its decision to buy a Chinese air defense system. Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made the final call to buy the Chinese system over American, European and Russian competitors, suggested there were some conditions under which Turkey would change its mind:
Despite criticism from its NATO allies, Turkey would only give up co-producing a long-range air and missile defense system with a Chinese firm currently under US sanctions if the company were to decide to pull out of the deal, leading Turkey to talk to other bidders, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said...
"The Chinese system will be checked to see if it fits NATO standards,” Erdoğan said.
And on Tuesday, Reuters reported that Turkey has asked the American bidder, Raytheon, to not give up quite yet.
The sources familiar with the US proposal to supply a Raytheon-built Patriot missile defense system said Turkish officials had requested an extension of the pricing included in the bid while their talks continued with China.
"It's clear that they are trying to hedge their bets," said one of the sources.