Deterring Russia

2019 / 05 / 10

By Irina Arabidze, International Relations Analyst  

During the past two weeks, we have been hearing statements about the necessity of reducing Georgia’s defense budget, about provocativeness of U.S. military bases and even about declaring neutrality. Despite the fact that according to the most recent polls, the support for Euro-Atlantic integration has increased in Georgia, the foreign policy consensus is no longer a given in the country. Keeping these discussions in mind, it is important to analyze why these statements are harmful, how we can fight an opponent who is much stronger than us and what obstacles and opportunities there are on the way.

What are the ways of opposing a much stronger opponent? States can obtain security in three ways: by boosting their military potential, by acquiring strong allies or, in the best case scenario, by having access to both. In order to ensure their security, small states often need both, since a well-trained army and reserve forces serve as a first line of defense, while strong allies ensure that power distribution does not overwhelmingly favor the enemy.

What is Georgia’s status quo?  The Russian Federation is our adversary who is much stronger than us and aims to restore the lost  influence in its neighborhood. In case of Georgia, Russia tries to do this by using a full spectrum of military, political and economic leverages. This includes war, occupation of our territories, and illegal deployment of military bases and equipment in our country.

In the existing security environment what are our options for improving our position? We have two interconnected options: significantly boosting our military potential and looking for strong allies. Contrary to these alternatives, some believe that we need to reach a compromise with Russia in order to restore territorial integrity and avoid war. They camouflage this idea using the concepts of non-alignment and neutrality; however, in reality, we are dealing with the concept of “Finlandization,” which dates back to the Cold War era. According to this model, we need to give up our independent foreign policy. This means abandoning our Euro-Atlantic integration course. In return, Russia will not occupy us and we will maintain nominal sovereignty and peace alone.

In reality though, by declaring neutrality we would be capitulating. Announcing neutrality is impossible under the circumstances when Russia is actively fighting against Georgia’s sovereignty and independence and does not plan to stay neutral in this confrontation. To put it simply, Russia will not fulfill its obligations. If the West does not guarantee our security, nothing will force Russia to curtail its aggressive policies against Georgia. Even the Cold War era example of Finland shows that instead of avoiding interference, Russia purposefully and aggressively intruded in the Finish domestic affairs. We also have plenty of modern-day examples when Russia reneged on its agreement pledges. The Six-Point Agreement signed as a result of the 2008 Georgia-Russia August War is only one of them.

Moreover, it is important to understand that it is not in the Russian interests to give up Georgia’s occupied territories. Moldova, for example, has yet to reclaim Transnistria, despite announcing neutrality back in 1994. Russia fights against the existence of united, strong and developed states at its borders, because these countries are not easy to control. Consequently, the promise that we will manage to regain territorial integrity and accelerate our development pace by straying from our foreign policy course is not in line with reality.

If we unilaterally say no to the West, Russia will only interfere in Georgia’s domestic affairs more rigorously, robbing us of the development opportunities presented by Western integration. Moreover, moving towards Euro-Atlantic structures implies adopting open and democratic governance system. Our western aspirations “force” us to create a strong and economically developed country, where an individual represents a core value. In such a society we have guaranteed freedom of speech, faith and a right to dignified life. The alternative to this path is backsliding and stagnating in economically and politically vulnerable Georgia. Therefore, if we evaluate the consequences, bandwagoning with Russia on our own initiative is an irrational choice.

Given all of the aforementioned, in order to deter Russia, apart from strong military capabilities, we require powerful allies.

What hinders us from moving closer to the West? The answer to this question can be divided into two parts. First, why the West is hesitant to include Georgia in its security architecture and second, what obstacles we need to overcome ourselves.

Why is the West treading carefully?

In order to answer this question, it is important to familiarize ourselves with the foreign policy views of the leader of the free world – the United States. The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world. In today’s reality, no other state has the capacity to project power in any given corner of the world, nor does any other country possess such an elaborate system of alliances. Despite this fact, given the threats facing the United States, the country is actively debating what the U.S. strategic interests are and which regions are worth focusing on.

In order to see this discussion in a wider context, Walter Russell Mead puts forward four schools of U.S. foreign policy thought. They are known as Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools. Each one of them sees U.S. vital national interests differently and these schools can serve as a guide for understanding the U.S. involvement in the world affairs.

The proponents of the Hamiltonian school of thought believe that the leading priority is developing stable market economy within the country and supporting global trade. According to this school, global influence must serve deepening of U.S. economic relations and protecting of U.S. economic interests. Alexander Hamilton, as the first U.S.  Secretary of the Treasury, is considered as the  founder of the country’s financial system and Hamiltonians revolve around the idea of the United States as an economic leader. In serving the country’s vital national interests, Hamiltonians do not shy away from independent action, which falls outside the limits set by international organizations. As one example, the leadership style of the former U.S. President George H.W. Bush is, at times, equated with the views of the Hamiltonian school of thought.

Those from the Wilsonian school of thought believe that the United States has a special role in the world and they lead with the idea of supporting peace through international institutions. According to Wilsonians, by spreading democracy and the U.S. values in the world, the country is fulfilling its moral obligation and is  serving its national interests simultaneously, acting mainly with the help of international organizations. Woodrow Wilson is considered to be one of the most idealist Presidents in the U.S. history, whose name is connected with the creation of the League of Nations after the First World War. In the modern context, former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama can be seen as proponents of the Wilsonian school of thought.

The Jeffersonian school of thought, which carries the name of the third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, favors protecting democracy within the United States and is particularly concerned with the United States taking international obligations that the country either will not or cannot fulfill. Hence, this school is especially critical of interventionism, believing that military action abroad damages the U.S. democratic system. Libertarians and socialists often gather around the ideas of the Jeffersonian school of thought. For example, former candidates for U.S. presidency, Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul and Rand Paul, as well as the Democratic Congresswoman from the State of New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, share viewpoints with this school of thought.

For the representatives of the Jacksonian school, U.S. security and vital national interests are of primary importance and the U.S. military power is the main pillar for protecting these interests. This school carries the name of the seventh U.S. President, Andrew Jackson. The proponents of Jacksonian ideas avoid intervention, but if national interests are in danger, victory is the only alternative. Instead of acting through international institutions, Jacksonians do  not shy away from independent decisions and firm military response. As Mead describes, for the Jacksonian school, attacking the U.S. is like stirring up a hornet’s nest and adequate reaction follows. Former U.S. Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are often seen as Jacksonian  presidents.

The debate about the pros and cons of these differing foreign policy schools is still ongoing today and which views dominate the U.S. decision-making critically influences the world order. It is important to note that U.S. presidents rarely lead with only one school of thought. Looking at history, the U.S. foreign policy vector is often a mixture of all four. However, what matters is which sets of ideas are the leading ones at any given time.  

As Walter Russell Mead’s analysis shows, when identifying U.S. vital national interests, there is a constant clash of opinions between defending the international world order and defining U.S. interests more narrowly. Being the world’s policeman is a big burden for the United States and many decision-makers in the country are dissatisfied that the so-called free riders are taking advantage of the world order the U.S. has created. On Europe’s example, the low defense spending causes particular annoyance, together with construction of gas pipelines to Russia, as well as opposition to the U.S. efforts with Iran and China. In this context, tying states like Georgia to the U.S. security architecture is seen as an additional burden, which does nothing to further U.S. national interests.

Taking this context into account, it is important to let the U.S. decision-makers see why partnering with Georgia is worth their effort. By participating in international missions under the auspices of NATO and the EU, Georgia shows that it has the ability to not only be a consumer of security, but also be its provider. In addition, it is necessary to note that Russia, as a revisionist state, fights against U.S. influence in Europe. It is in the U.S. interests to support establishment of independent and strong states at Russia’s borders in order to contain the adversary. Russia is constantly checking how firm the U.S. commitment to European security is and abandoning states like Georgia and Ukraine in trouble sends a clear signal that red lines can also be challenged in the Central and Eastern Europe. Also, conceding to Russian demands serves as an indication to other U.S. regional rivals that it is possible to expand the areas of their influence at the expense of U.S. interests.

How can we boost U.S. involvement in Georgia?

Despite the fact that the dominant foreign policy outlook within the U.S. greatly influences our attempts to deepen cooperation with the country, it is no less important what our efforts are for facilitating this process. In order to improve our security, it is vital to maintain active pace of western integration, so that despite Russian opposition, we do not give up and manage to reach our goal.

On this path, three interconnected strategies can be outlined:  aspiration to NATO membership, bilateral military cooperation with the U.S. and investment of significant resources in boosting our military potential.

Western Integration and membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is Georgia’s declared foreign policy goal. This is a cornerstone of our security and we must steadfastly continue on this path.

In addition, it is important to test the potential of bilateral military cooperation with the U.S. This means purchasing military equipment, joint trainings, but also the possibility of U.S. military deployments in the country. The arrival of a U.S. military base in Georgia is not a subject of simple negotiations. Currently, U.S. guarantees European security through NATO, which can hinder bilateral military engagement with Georgia. Nonetheless, this alternative must become a priority for our diplomatic efforts.

Occasionally, we hear domestic opposition to placing  U.S. military bases in Georgia, which is labeled as provocative for Russia. It is important to understand what this development means for our security. Given the existing military balance, Russia could occupy the Baltic States in about 60 hours. Despite openly aggressive policy towards this region, why does Russia not invade? The answer is simple:  Russia knows that following the initial victory, NATO will react and the country will have to deal with the U.S. armed forces.

In case of Georgia, the presence of a U.S. military base on our soil equals NATO membership, as it has the same deterrent effect vis-à-vis  Russia, as the NATO security umbrella to the Baltic States. U.S. military bases can even be considered a stronger security guarantee, given the fact that NATO decision-making is based on a consensus between 29 member-states, while the U.S. forces can act unilaterally. Hence, the presence of U.S. troops in Georgia not only avoids provoking war, but helps us prevent it, since it becomes clear to Russia that attacking Georgia means confronting the U.S. The example of the Baltic States illustrates that Russia wants to avoid such a confrontation.

It is Georgia’s weakness that is truly provocative to Russia. A country left alone without strategic partners is a much easier target for Russia, compared to receiving an unequivocal support from the leading military force in the world that confrontation with Georgia means dealing with the U.S. forces.

Deploying U.S. military bases in Georgia is currently not on the agenda. Despite the fact that reaching this goal will not be feasible in a short-term perspective, it is important to use the alternatives that could be more acceptable to our partners in the current geopolitical reality. One such proposition comes from the former Commanding General of the United States Army in Europe, Ben Hodges, who recommends placing rotational forces in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Georgia. Lobbying such initiatives is the task of our diplomats.

Finally, as the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell stated during his visit to Georgia last year, “America continues to help those who help themselves in the struggle for freedom.” Significantly strengthening our armed and reserve forces  by mobilizing our own resources is exactly the kind of help that we need to lend ourselves. Reducing military spending directly contradicts the idea of fighting for our freedom.


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