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NATO enlargement in the Caucasus: the prospects and pitfalls of Georgia s membership ambitions

NATO enlargement in the Caucasus: the prospects and pitfalls of Georgia’s membership ambitions

The NATO-Georgia relationship has proven to be solid and mutually beneficial. Tbilisi meets the requirements to fully be integrated into the NATO political system and command structure. Yet, despite Georgia’s forceful plea for membership, greater regional dynamics inhibit the fulfilment of Tbilisi’s transatlantic ambitions.

Russian presence in the Caucasus constitutes the main obstacle. Moscow seeks to maintain a coercive presence in and around the region so as to manage escalation in peacetime, close off the area in crisis and rapidly intervene in case of conflict before Western involvement. To fulfil these ambitions, Russia pursues a multi-domain strategy in the Caucasus. Land forces are stationed around Georgia, ready to deploy under short notice; air bases host advanced fighter jets capable of carrying out deep strikes against Tbilisi; and warships dominate the surrounding Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

I consequently argue that the immediate political environment is too hostile for a formal membership offer to be issued. NATO should, thus, look for alternative, more compromising ways of integrating Georgia: ones that uphold the same mutual benefits as membership.

In turn, each NATO member state could bilaterally assist and supply Georgia with defensive arms, military advisers, and encourage standardization and interoperability with NATO. Under a NATO framework, a comprehensive Black Sea strategy, the establishment of a regional HQ in Romania, and the enhancement of current training, intelligence sharing, and aid programs could indirectly, yet substantially, decrease pressure on Georgia and move the partnership forward.


By Pierre Dugue


In August 2018, almost exactly ten years after the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev warned that Georgia’s accession to NATO ‘could provoke a terrible conflict.’[i] This threat came amid growing transatlantic ambitions on the part of the Georgian government, which has amended its constitution to enshrine NATO membership as a prime objective.[ii]

In this regard, Tbilisi enjoys international esteem. Georgia has proven to be a reliable economic, political, and military partner to many NATO member states. It is a flourishing democracy with high potential due to its key location between the resource-rich Caspian Sea and the strategically important Black Sea. Georgia has become an important actor in the context of renewed great power confrontation with Russia and has consequently received extensive backing from the West. Looking at Georgia’s attitude and attributes, is granting Tbilisi full NATO membership the next logical step?

Moving the NATO-Georgia relationship forward is essential. Nonetheless, the regional security environment remains a major inhibiting factor. Russia’s continuous forward presence in the Caucasus effectively seeks to further its de facto control of its immediate neighbourhood. Subsequent military deployments have resulted in the direct coercion of Tbilisi into abandoning its transatlantic aspirations, a factor Georgia can hardly ignore no matter how forceful its ambitions may be.

I argue that instead of an immediate and unconditional membership offer that would entail an Article 5 commitment, NATO should look for alternative, more accommodating ways of integrating Georgia. These ought to uphold the same mutual benefits as membership –enhanced cooperation, interoperability, and intelligence-sharing – while being politically compatible with Russia’s wariness of witnessing a NATO presence in the Caucasus.


Geopolitics of the Caucasus: Georgia and the legacy of the Karabakh conflict

An integral part of Tbilisi’s post-Soviet nationalist rhetoric has been its constant and consistent rebuke of Moscow, a rationale with roots that run deep in Georgia’s historical narrative and self-perception as Russia’s vassal.[iii] This rationale was transposed into the country’s independence-driven foreign policy, which primarily aimed at minimising Moscow’s influence. Early on, Tbilisi saw in Azerbaijan’s Caspian resources a valuable alternative energy provider to Gazprom. Talks began as early as 1994 for the creation of a Baku-Suspa pipeline, opened in 1999. Baku became an important partner in establishing a highly beneficial Caucasus-Europe energy route, a project furthered by the creation of the GUAM Organisation (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) in 2001. The establishment of the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum-Ceyhan pipeline in 2005 was perceived as a major step towards an integrated Transcaucasia energy project, highly profitable for Georgia’s economy but also highly polarizing.

Armenia did not fit well into Georgia’s grand strategy. Trans-Caucasus energy projects were drawn to bypass Yerevan. These dynamics directly resulted from the conflict around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territories with Azerbaijan, to which Georgia became a third party. Tbilisi considered Baku’s natural resources as such an existential guarantee of independence from Moscow that, in 2011, the government stated that it “unilaterally supported the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and […called for] the liberation of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”[iv] President Saakashvili further added, “whoever opposes Azerbaijan is Georgia’s enemy.”[v]

 As the Georgia-Azerbaijan block grew stronger and more integrated, Armenia sought to compensate for regional exclusion by internationalising the conflict and calling upon Russian political and military assistance. Yerevan requested the stationing of Russian troops from 1995 onwards to offset Azerbaijan’s military superiority. Most importantly, since Baku’s resources stopped transiting to Armenia, “Russia supplied nearly all of Armenia’s natural gas and oil and has a significant position in its energy infrastructure.”[vi] In early 2019, Armenia dispatched non-combat troops to Syria under Russian command as an expression of bilateral gratitude. The resulting diplomatic dichotomy in the Caucasus – a Georgia-Azerbaijan bloc against a Russo-Armenian bloc – was exploited by Moscow to further its geostrategic ambitions beyond its national territory.

In sum, the Nagorno-Karabakh war led to the establishment of set alliances due to Armenia’s regional isolation. Increased Russian presence came about as a result of Yerevan’s balancing efforts. Post-Soviet dynamics have thus brought about distinct geopolitical blocs, namely Tbilisi-Baku-Ankara and Yerevan-Moscow, which seemingly last to date.


Russia in the Caucasus: a de facto strategy of absorption

In April 2008, NATO unanimously declared that it would welcome Georgia into the Alliance. In August, Russia crossed the border and pushed back against the Georgian forces’ pacification campaign in South Ossetia, while moving deep into Abkhazia and performing kinetic strikes on key targets near the Tbilisi airport. The general academic consensus is that Moscow sought to keep Tbilisi under control – non-aligned at best – through military coercion to ensure the Caucasus remains NATO-free.[vii]

Political scientist Iryna Busygina demonstrates that Russia’s grand strategic purpose of repositioning itself as a great power entails a necessary policy of absorption of its ‘near-abroad.’[viii] Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov forcefully declared in 2002, “We are ready to cooperate but if there are attempts to squeeze Russia out of these regions, where we have historic interests, we will not accept that.”[ix]

 The Kremlin seems to have embraced Darwinian paradigms, whereby world politics equates to geopolitical competition for survival, where power is a critical enabler. Russia’s near-abroad policy arguably aims at establishing ‘strategic depth’ against competing organisations like the EU and NATO. Dummy entities like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) seem to validate this hypothesis and further confirm the revisionist nature of Russian foreign policy, posing an alternative to the West. The Caucasus is a key contested area in that regard. Since 2008, Russia’s Caucasus strategy has persisted in containing Western advances by keeping Georgia non-aligned through a continuous forward military presence, characterised by the de facto control of land, air, and maritime domains.[x]

Initially, Moscow implemented a terra nostra strategy – a de facto land occupation. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, the 7th and 4th military bases house approximately 10,000 soldiers.[xi] The regions have been fenced off and recognised as independent states by Moscow. In 2017, reports indicated that the South Ossetian and Abkhaz militias were being trained by Russian forces, slowly integrated into the Southern District’s command structure and participating in joint exercises in Vladikavkaz.[xii] Tbilisi is being intentionally coerced through the presence of rapid-reaction troops in Russia’s 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia, 50 km from the border with Georgia.[xiii] The base consists of three mechanized infantry, one artillery and one anti-aircraft missile regiments.[xiv] Three large-scale high-intensity scenario CSTO exercises will take place in Armenia in March 2020 to further promote interoperability.

In parallel, Russia has developed an aeris nostris strategy – a de facto monopoly on air traffic through the deployment of air supremacy assets. Units of fourth-generation MiG-29 fighter jets and S-300 long-range air defence systems are operational in Russia’s 3624th airbase in Erebuni Airport near Yerevan, 3,500 strong.[xv] Access denial, airspace violations, and constant monitoring are all part of Russia’s coercion strategy in Georgia. An important event has been Yerevan’s ratification of a joint air defence initiative agreement that would integrate both countries’ air defence systems.[xvi] This is a significant step in advancing Russian influence in the Caucasus, since increased deployment of such systems – like the S-400 – would finalise Russia’s continental defensive zone and establish a continuous anti-access area denial (A2AD) corridor on NATO’s eastern flank from Murmansk to Latakia.[xvii]

Likewise, Russia has been implementing a mare nostrum strategy around the Caucasus. Since its annexation, the Crimean Peninsula has constituted the backbone of Russian forward defence in the South. The Black Sea Fleet has been modernized with anti-ship systems, ballistic missiles, and long-range anti-air systems so as to control maritime traffic and de facto secure in the Black Sea through A2AD means.[xviii] This exerts pressure on Tbilisi, for it results in the isolation of the essential economic hubs of Poti and Batumi, which can be blockaded at will by the Kremlin. Now, Russia has pretentions on the Caspian Sea, whose natural resources determine Georgia’s political independence. In October 2015, in a large show of force, two Caspian flotilla corvettes fired 26 cruise missiles that travelled more than 2,000 km to hit targets in Syria.[xix] Georgia is arguably caught in between two informal ‘Russian lakes’.


Georgia’s NATO membership: perspectives and alternatives

Russian presence in the Caucasus has galvanized, rather than buried, Georgia’s transatlantic ambitions. Moscow’s misinterpretation lies in the fact that Tbilisi’s outward-looking policies are not motivated by an unconditional admiration for the West but by an inherent rejection of Russia as an alternative.

To contest Russia’s multi-domain approach, Tbilisi has been seeking outside support, most notably in the EU, NATO, and the United States through a policy of military contributions. At its peak, Georgia had more than 2,000 troops in the NATO-led mission to Afghanistan, a substantial and costly deployment for Tbilisi, which sustained high casualty rates.[xx] It currently contributes to NATO-led missions in Kosovo, the Horn of Africa, and the Mediterranean as well as to the NATO Response Force.[xxi] Georgia’s contingent in the US-led war in Iraq was the third largest, with a brigade-size contribution in 2007.[xxii] Tbilisi also provided a force of 156 soldiers to the EU-led missions to the Central African Republic and Mali.[xxiii]

Yet, Georgia’s diplomatic efforts had been slow to be rewarded. It is the Crimea annexation that drew attention to Russia’s increasing grip over the Caucasus and triggered global support for Tbilisi. Georgia suddenly became a critical strategic partner, essential in countering Moscow’s integration of its neighbourhood that might, ultimately, undermine European and transatlantic security as a whole.

Georgia has been given political backing through different mechanisms. In 2014 at the Wales Summit, the NATO-Georgia commission invited Georgian diplomats to participate in Military Committee meetings. The Summit also produced a ‘Substantial NATO-Georgia Package’ (SNGP) that included the establishment of a Joint Training and Evaluation Centre and a military-civilian Administration School so as to promote the assimilation and interoperability of Georgian troops into the NATO command structure.[xxiv] What is more, a seventeen-nation NATO exercise took place in Georgia in March 2019.

As for the US, Washington accelerated the bilateral relationship at an unprecedented level for very specific reasons. Georgia has proven to be a strong democracy in a troubled region. Terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge appear to be a priority as they are affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate and therefore with the Islamic State’s global network. Georgia’s energy-transit facilities are essential to mitigate Gazprom’s monopoly in Europe. Georgia is also a forward ally in a region hostile to the US and dominated by Russian satellites in Central Asia and by Iran in the South. Congressman Ted Poe (TX-Rep) declared: “The friendship between our two nations has been forged in blood […] There is no doubt, the United States must do more to help Tbilisi continue its democratic trajectory and defend against the very real Russian threat […]”[xxv]

Thus, do all the aforementioned facts justify granting Georgia NATO membership? It would appear a fair endeavour considering Tbilisi’s past commitments. And yet, it seems to be politically infeasible. One would be ill-advised to test President Putin’s resolve after the Crimea precedent by expanding NATO further east. This by no means implies that Georgia should be forsaken to Moscow. The political objective is rather straightforward: find the right equilibrium between Georgia’s quest for collective security and Russia’s aversion to NATO’s presence in its near abroad. Informal ways of promoting the integration of Tbilisi into NATO may consequently be fit for purpose.

Bilateral efforts can directly boost Georgia’s internal security without alienating Moscow. NATO members should, especially through the United Nations, push Russia to commit to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s six-point plan that specified the repositioning of Russian forces at their pre-war positions. NATO countries could individually provide anti-ship and medium-range anti-air systems to Georgia so as to help Tbilisi 1) defend its coastline, 2) control its de jure airspace (including over Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and 3) deter Russian adventurism in the Caucasus. In 2017, the US ‘General Security of Information Agreement’ enhanced intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation, while in 2018 the ‘Georgia Support Act’ promoted deterrence, counter-disinformation, and cyber operations.[xxvi] Washington also approved substantial arms sales to Tbilisi, including a USD 75 million sale of anti-tank Javelin rockets.[xxvii] Ideally, all NATO members should provide bilateral assistance to Georgia outside of the NATO framework.

Under a NATO framework, policies can indirectly, yet substantially, contribute to Georgia’s security. NATO could produce a comprehensive, wide-reaching Black Sea Security Strategy – the region’s centre of gravity. Framed by this document, an increased number of anti-ship and missile defence systems deployed to Romania to contest Russia’s maritime presence and consequently decrease pressure on Tbilisi without directly creating grave tensions over the Caucasus. The regular patrolling of NATO warships in the Black Sea would likewise provide further political reassurances and display great overall resolve and resilience. A NATO-certified Centre of Excellence on Black Sea security could be established in Georgia to enhance situational awareness and information gathering, sharing, and dissemination.

In 2014, Georgia joined NATO’s ‘Partnership Interoperability Initiative’ (PII), allowing non-NATO partners to contribute to NATO missions and exercises.[xxviii] This wide-reaching initiative is, arguably, an ideal middle ground. NATO and Georgia mutually benefit from interoperability, mutual assistance, and intelligence sharing; while the PII is compatible with Russia’s ‘NATO-free Caucasus’ policy. The PII could be further developed by encouraging Georgian participation in NATO’s multi-national battlegroups deployed to the Baltic States, accept the contribution of air assets as part of NATO’s air policing mission in the Balkans,  and by organising regular non-combat exercises in Georgia (logistics, command and control, and cyberattack simulations).

Not only could the PII be enhanced, it could be complemented by parallel, cross-cutting measures. Georgian officers could attend classes at the NATO Defence College in Rome so as to communicate the Alliance’s best practices in terms of training and exercises, doctrine, leadership, and planning. Invitations to the Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre (JALLC) in Lisbon could be issued to officers and senior civil servants. The NATO Standardization Office could create a sub-division working towards ensuring interoperability in basic armament and equipment to facilitate Georgia’s participation in NATO training and exercises. These complementary measures would further promote NATO values, deepen mutual interoperability, facilitate lessons-learned and best practices sharing, and more broadly foster the NATO-Georgia relationship.



Georgia has become one of the critical poles of the NATO-Russia relationship. It is situated precisely at the crossroads between Russia’s policy of absorption of its near abroad and NATO’s open door policy. Russia is exercising direct military pressure on Georgia through naval, maritime, and land deployments, while NATO provides political, economic, and light military assistance. Georgia has demonstrated its leaning towards NATO, yet Tbilisi can hardly ignore regional dynamics. Compromising appears to be a reasonable solution.

Whilst the immediate environment is arguably too hostile and Moscow too unpredictable for a traditional membership offer to be made, NATO can still foster the bilateral relationship through alternative means. NATO members should bilaterally engage with Georgia to promote interoperability and boost its defensive capabilities. Under a NATO framework, a comprehensive Black Sea strategy could be conceived and implemented so as to contest Russian behaviour and decrease pressure on Georgia. Likewise, Tbilisi could further contribute to NATO through participating in NATO exercises and joint operations. All these measures could enhance Georgian security and further foster the NATO-Georgia relationship without aggravating tensions with Moscow over the Caucasus.

It is critical that Georgia’s integration into Western organisations be encouraged, as it directly enhances the legitimacy of the Western model in the face of Russia’s revisionist endeavours. Ultimately, the aforementioned recommendations may apply to other countries, Ukraine above all.


Pierre Dugue, a former US State Department intern and research assistant at King’s College London’s War Studies Department, is an American Enterprise Institute ‘Honors Program’ alumnus. He graduated from King’s College London and is now pursuing an MA in International Security at the Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs. His academic interests include the NATO/Russia relationship, US military doctrine, and transatlantic security.



[i] Andrew Osborn, “Russian PM warns NATO admission of Georgia could trigger 'terrible conflict',” Reuters, 6 August 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-nato-georgia/russian-pm-warns-....

[ii] “NATO-Georgia Commission Declaration at the Brussels Summit,” NATO Press Release, 12 July 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_156627.htm.

[iii] Stephen Jones, Georgia: A Political History Since Independence (London: IB Tauris, 2013).

[iv] “Georgia supports resolution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict within Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity,” Trend News Agency, 28 August 2011, https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/karabakh/1924105.html.

[v] “Whoever Opposes Azerbaijan is Georgia’s ‘Enemy,’ Says Saakashvili in early August 2011,” Asbarez, 4 August 2011, http://asbarez.com/97475/whoever-opposes-azerbaijan-is-georgias-enemy-sa....

[vi] David Bayajian, “Why Russia Needs Armenia and Vice Versa,” Armenia Weekly, 5 February 2019, https://armenianweekly.com/2019/02/05/why-russia-needs-armenia-and-vice-....

[vii] Roy Allison, “Russia Resurgent? Moscow's Campaign to 'Coerce Georgia to Peace',” International Affairs 84, no. 6 (Nov. 2008: 1145–1171.

[viii] Iryna Busygina, Russia-EU relations and the common neighbourhood: coercion vs. authority (New York/London: Routledge, 2018), 48.

[ix] Thomas De Waal, The Caucasus: an Introduction, 2nd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 180.

[x] Diego A. Ruiz Palmer, “Back to the future? Russia’s hybrid warfare, revolutions in military affairs, and Cold War comparisons,” NATO Defence College Research Paper (N°120, October 2015).

[xi] Anton Lavrov, “Post-war Deployment of Russian Forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” in The Tanks of August, ed. Ruslan Pukhov, Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (2010).

[xii] “Moscow Moves to Absorb Rebel Georgian Region’s Military,” Reuters, 14 March 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-georgiaarmy/moscow-moves-to-ab....

[xiii] Mikhail Klimentiev, “Medvedev secures long-term foothold in Armenia,” The Moscow Times, 23 August 2010, https://themoscowtimes.com/news/medvedev-secures-long-term-foothold-in-a....

[xiv] Nikolai Litovkin, “Russia and Armenia to Create Joint Defense Force in Caucasus,” United Press International, 16 November 2016, https://www.upi.com/Russia-and-Armenia-to-create-joint-defense-force-in-....

[xv] Margarete Klein, “Russia’s military capabilities,” German Institute for International and Security Affairs, October 2009, https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/research_papers/2..., 20.

[xvi] Viktor Litovkin, “Russia, Armenia to set up joint air defense system in the Caucasus,” United Press International, 12 October 2016, https://www.upi.com/Defense-News/2016/10/12/Russia-Armenia-to-set-up-joi....

[xviii] Nicholas Gvosdev, “Russia’s Strategy in the Black Sea basin,” War on the Rocks, 2 August 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/russias-strategy-in-the-black-sea-basin/.

[xix] “4 Russian warships launch 26 missiles against ISIS from Caspian Sea,” Russia Today, 7 October 2015, https://www.rt.com/news/317864-russian-warships-missiles-launch/.

[xx] Luke Coffey, “NATO membership for Georgia: in US and European interest,” Heritage Foundation, Special Report n°199, 29 January 2018.

[xxi]  “Substantial NATO Georgia Package (SNGP),” NATO Factsheet, 12 September 2015, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2015_12/20151209_....

[xxii] Koba Lilikadze, “Iraq: As Third-Largest Contingent, Georgia Hopes to Show Its Worth,” Reuters, 7 September 2008, https://www.rferl.org/a/1078614.html.

[xxiii] “Facts and Figures about EU-Georgia relations,” European Union External Action Service (EUEAS) website, https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/eap_factsheet_georgia_en_web.pdf.

[xxiv] “Substantial NATO Georgia Package (SNGP),” NATO Factsheet, 12 September 2015, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2015_12/20151209_....

[xxv] Samantha Guthrie, “Georgia Support Act Introduced in US Congress,” Georgia Today, 27 June 2018, http://georgiatoday.ge/news/10964/Georgia-Support-Act-Introduced-in-US-C....

[xxvi] “United States and Georgia Sign General Security of Information Agreement,” U.S. Department of State, 9 May 2017, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/05/270754.htm.

[xxvii] “Georgia–Javelin Missiles and Command Launch Units,” Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 20 November 2017, http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/georgia-javelin-missiles-and-comman....

[xxviii] “Partnership Interoperability Initiative,” NATO, 7 June 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/em/natohq/topics_132726.htm.

Image Credit: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/20140116_nato_Georgia.jpg

Sunday, 5 January, 2020 - 20:15