What is the Connection between NATO and Reclaiming Abkhazia?

2019 / 09 / 19

By Shota Utiashvili, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation 

The idea voiced by the former Secretary General of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, about how Georgia could become a member of NATO has been under discussion for a long time in expert circles. The idea is very simple and logical:  Russia has occupied 20% of Georgian territories[1]. If Georgia were to become a member of NATO tomorrow, the alliance would find itself in a state of war with the occupying country. This means that Georgian membership in NATO could become a reason for conflict between two nuclear states. This reduces Georgia’s chances of membership. In order to avoid the risk, NATO will integrate Georgia as a unified state; however, Article 5, which is the obligation of collective defense, will only cover the non-occupied part of Georgia. This means that NATO will not have the obligation to expel the occupants using military force, say from Tskhinvali, but will have the obligation to defend, for example, the city of Gori with weapons in hand should the Russians decide to take the city. At the same time, NATO states that it will do all in its power, through peaceful means, that is, for Georgia’s territorial integrity to be restored.

The first part of this deliberation is so self-evident and logically coherent that we practically have not heard any argument against it apart from ultra-patriotic sentiments; however, the most interesting is the second part:  how will Georgian membership in NATO facilitate the return of the occupied territories?

The general argument that membership in NATO will make Georgia more developed, rich and, therefore, more attractive for Ossetians and Abkhazians should be put aside for a moment. The occupied territories are occupied, in part, because nobody asks the opinion of the local population.

Let us start answering this question by attempting to answer another equally complicated question:  why is Georgia not a member of NATO today despite the promise made in Bucharest 11 years ago?

This question has been answered in various ways, yet, in total, it can be summed up as – Russia can occupy entire Georgia faster than NATO can mobilize its armies towards Georgia to provide decisive military support. So to imagine the scenario where tomorrow NATO announces that it is accepting Georgia as a member state and Georgia is attacked by Russia on the following day – Georgia would not be able to defend itself until NATO supporting armies arrive. NATO will face a choice:  start a military operation against Russia with the aim of liberating Georgia (which contains a clear threat of a nuclear conflict) or start peace negotiations with Russia which will help it avoid a nuclear conflict, yet will practically end NATO’s existence as a military organization[2].

In short, the problem is that in the process of integration, due to proximity with Russia and a long geographical distance from NATO’s core, Georgia will be the weakest link for the alliance. 

Russia needs the occupation of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia primarily in order to constantly remind NATO that in reality, Georgia is indeed the weakest link and, if necessary, Russia will not shy away from occupying the entire country. It is noteworthy that all military exercises conducted by NATO in Georgia are immediately followed by military exercises conducted by Russia on the occupied territories while the high-level visits from the West to Tbilisi are corresponded by visits to Sokhumi and Tskhinvali from Moscow.

Moscow’s message towards NATO is simple – if you accept Georgia, you will have a new headache as you will have a member that is far from you yet close to us and against which we can always use pressure or blackmail. Russia needs Sokhumi and Tskhinvali exactly for underlining this message.

Then, given such resistance and risks, how can Georgia (and Ukraine) be accepted into NATO? After the Russia-Ukraine War, the experts wondered a lot if Russia would go rogue and attack one of the NATO member states and which would be the point where it would do this. The weakest link would be the Baltic States as Russia would need a mere 60 hours to occupy all three of them. This shows how great the difference is in terms of in military capacities. Despite this, Russia did not even attempt to organize a military provocation in, say, Estonia (population 1.2 million, share of ethnic Russians – 30%). This was for one reason because as long as NATO has existed no one has been bold enough to actually test its power (Article 5 was activated only once and that was symbolic, after the 11 September attack). Secondly, NATO precisely calculated how many troops and equipment it needed to place in the Baltic States so that Russia would never dare to attack them. Then, it started taking specific steps. The military-economic potential of NATO and Russia are not even comparable as of today. For example, if we calculate the military expenditure, NATO spends 20 times more a year on defense than Russia does. The Russian economy today is smaller than the economy of Texas.

In the Georgian case, the resolution also is to increase the frequency and scale of NATO exercises here and NATO military-naval force presence to be strengthened in the Black Sea. Georgia needs to buy better weapons and better train its army so that the Russians have no hope that they will be able to occupy Georgia quickly and without serious resistance.

So Georgian membership in NATO is a difficult task, yet by no means is it an impossible one.

And here we arrive at the answer to our main question - how will Georgian membership in NATO facilitate the return of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region?

The issue is that our membership in NATO will turn this Russian scheme by 180 degrees. Georgia will no longer be NATO’s weak link while Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia will in fact become Russia’s weakest links (whether or not Russia actually annexes them). If today Russia decides to flex its muscles as a show for NATO, the best venue for it to do so will be Georgia and Ukraine (the 2008 and 2014-2016 wars are clear examples of this). In the case of Georgian membership of NATO, Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region will become similar venues for the alliance. Of course, I do not mean that NATO will start a war there but if it needs to show Russia its place and it will be the easiest to do this in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali. Why? There are a myriad of reasons, including legal, demographic, geographical, military and so on.

Both Abkhazia as well as the Tskhinvali region are located south of the main Caucasus ridge and their transport connections with Russia (especially in the case of Tskhinvali) are not always guaranteed, especially in winter. The populations of both of these regions are small, both include a Georgian component and the loyalty of the non-Georgian component to Russia is not always guaranteed either. The number of ethnic Russians is vanishingly small in both regions. In terms of international law, Russia’s pretenses on these regions are very weak. The economic ties of the regions to Russia are merely manifested in getting assistance from it. In short, after Georgian membership in NATO, it is not the case that Georgia will become a headache for NATO but rather the so-called South Ossetia and Abkhazia will become a headache for Russia – and, what is more, they will be a headache alone and nothing other than that.

[1] This scenario, as well as other scenarios in this text, are not the most likely ones.  On the contrary, they describe the so-called worst- case thinking, meaning that they consider the worst possible developments. For example, the likelihood of Georgian membership in NATO causing war between nuclear states, is very low, yet it still exists theoretically. However, in order for the skeptics to support Georgian membership in NATO, or at least, for their arguments to be weakened or undermined, there must be answers even to these theoretical worst-case scenarios.
[2] Here, much like earlier, we talk not about the most likely, but about the worst possible scenarios.

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