Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair of Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Voice of America’s Ia Meurmishvili that Georgia has nothing else left to prove to NATO in order to be invited into the Alliance. LTG Hodges also spoke about the state of the Black Sea security from NATO’s prospective and analyzed the Kerch Strait incident in a global context.
LTG Hodges’s last military assignment was a Commander of the United States Army in Europe from 2014 to 2017.
Black Sea security and its role in the overall European security has been a much discussed and important topic in recent years. How solid is the Black Sea security from NATO’s perspective at the moment?
The Alliance has certainly recognized the strategic importance of the Black Sea this past year. In 2018, there were more days when there were ships from NATO countries operating in the Black Sea, within the constraints of the Montreux Convention. So, the United States, Germany and other countries, have had ships in the Black Sea [more frequently], and this is a recognition [of its importance].
In the Black Sea, you have Turkey, which has a responsibility for Turkish Straits under the Montreux Convention and has always very strictly enforced the convention provisions, which is important. Then you have two other NATO allies, Romania and Bulgaria, you have two very good friends, Georgia and Ukraine, and then, of course, the Russian Federation. The key is to ensure the security and stability of our allies and our friends, as well as the freedom of navigation on the Black Sea in accordance with international law. Unlike in the Baltic Sea, where you have seven countries that are either NATO members or friends like Finland and Sweden, and the Russian Federation, and [free] access in and out, the Black Sea is different because of the Montreux.
We have talked about this in the past that Georgia needs to play a larger role or become more active in assisting the NATO allies with enhancing security in the Black Sea. The Georgian President, during her recent visit to Brussels, made a very clear point that she wants Georgia to be a key player in the Black Sea security. Where do you think Georgia stands right now from this perspective, and is there anything Georgia can do to become a bigger partner for the allies?
First of all, I believe that Georgia should be invited to join the Alliance at the next summit. I absolutely believe in that, but not everybody sees it that way. There are concerns that 20% of the country is still occupied by Russian troops, but there is a precedent for NATO membership; Germany was divided in East and West, where you had hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops occupying East Germany. Yet, West Germany was brought into the Alliance, and this is something that could be worked out [also for Georgia].
Georgia should be a member of the Alliance because, number one, it would improve the overall security situation in the Black Sea region and would enhance the security of other allies there. Number two, the Georgians have done everything required. There is nothing else left to prove and it is not just the fact that you have suffered casualties in Afghanistan; you have brave soldiers and everybody wants to have Georgian troops with them because they are so good. So, you have nothing else to prove. It is time for the Alliance to go ahead and take that next step and invite Georgia for membership.
It is time for the Alliance to go ahead and take that next step and invite Georgia for membership.
The second point is that the potential for economic improvement in the region is about to go way up, particularly with the construction of the Anaklia port. It is going to be built over the next couple of years, a $2.5 billion investment, and has Georgian and U.S. companies investing, as well as others. The potential for Anaklia to become a logistics hub – as part of the portal between Europe and Eurasia – is huge. The stakeholders, European countries, as well as the United States, will be even more interested in the security of Georgia once the port of Anaklia is operational, because there will be so much economic activity that Georgia will be more important in the eyes of businesspeople and political leaders. This is another reason why we would all benefit from a very secure and stable Georgia, which would come with Georgia being a part of the Alliance.
The third point – until that day comes – we have to figure out ways to incorporate Georgia into the security efforts in the Black Sea region, where there is protected freedom of navigation for everybody in accordance with international law and the Montreux Convention. I think the Alliance, as well as the United States in a bilateral way, is already doing things. Obviously, there is a [U.S.-funded] program for developing Georgia’s defense capabilities. The U.S. is also looking at [establishing] some sort of a joint airbase [in Georgia]. There is intelligence sharing between U.S. and Georgia. Nobody expects Georgia to have a big navy in the Black Sea, but exercises, intelligence sharing, and air and missile defense capabilities to protect Georgian citizens are the three steps that directly affect Georgia and Georgia’s contribution [to NATO].
As you mentioned, the greater the economic interests, especially in that region, the greater the chances for Georgia to become a member.
That’s right, if economic interests are greater, many countries will have vested interests. They will be stakeholders in the stability and security of Georgia because there will be hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products moving back and forth through this new port.
In late November, there was a major incident in the Kerch Strait where Russia seized Ukrainian ships and arrested Ukrainian sailors. What do you think is happening? Is there a military conflict on the Black Sea right now?
Of course, there is a conflict, because Russia has illegally annexed Crimea. They have seized three Ukrainian vessels and 24 sailors are still sitting in jail in Russia. The bridge that was built across the Kerch Strait was designed in such a way that serious cargo vessels that normally would have sailed in and out of Mariupol and Berdyansk can no longer do that. That was not an accident or a design flaw. It was a deliberate step taken to not only establish a land bridge to Ukraine from the Russian mainland, but also to begin a blockade of the Sea of Azov. The strategic end of that is to significantly disrupt if not damage the Ukrainian economy, because of the importance of these ports, and eventually to choke off the Sea of Azov, and for Russia to have full control of it.
Can Turkey consider these events as a war on the Black Sea? And if it is so, why do you think we have not seen any strong actions from Ankara regarding the implementation of the Montreux Convention?
I am not aware of the discussions that might be going on between the Turkish and Ukrainian governments about that, but I recently heard the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin, refer to those 24 sailors as prisoners of war, not detainees, but prisoners of war. So, I think Ukraine sees it as such. Obviously, these things are always complicated, and it is never just black and white when it comes to how to legally categorize certain developments. In the greater scheme of things, however, if the West – including Turkey as a NATO ally – allows Russia’s illegal claim to Crimea to stand, and therefore the so-called territorial waters around Crimea to be treated as if they were Russian, then de facto, Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be accepted by the West. That is bad on a couple of levels; it undermines what all of us are trying to do to support Ukraine and to support international law, and an international order where people respect international law.
If the West – including Turkey as a NATO ally – allows Russia’s illegal claim to Crimea to stand, and therefore the so-called territorial waters around Crimea to be treated as if they were Russian, then de facto, Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be accepted by the West.
Number two, maybe even more dangerously, there is a precedent now. There are two or three other places around the world where you have narrow entrances such as the Straits of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and a couple of other places and if one country is able to get total control and manages to seal off these interior seas, then this would become a precedent. This would have major implications. Think about what goes through the Straits of Hormuz, and the South China Sea. So this this is a big deal. This is not something that happened off in a corner of the world and that only affects Russia and Ukraine.
Do you think this is making Turkey nervous? The status quo is clearly changing in the Black Sea.
I am sure Turkey is watching it very carefully. They take very seriously their responsibility for sovereignty over the Turkish Straits, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and the enforcement of the Montreux Convention. They are in a very tough neighborhood with Iran, Iraq, and Syria to their south, the Caucasus to the East, the Balkans to the West and Russia to the North. The Turkish leadership will tell you that they are fighting three different terrorist organizations at this time. They are concerned about what is happening in Syria now, especially in light of an announcement by President Trump that the U.S. is going to depart from there. So, they have real challenges. I could respect and understand why they would be very careful about how they might react to what Russia is doing. And then of course, there are other things; they intend to buy the S-400 air defense system from the Russian Federation. So these things, I think, are affecting their ability to react.
You have known Georgia for many years, you have worked with the Georgians and you have seen some of the processes inside the country, as well as the external perceptions of Georgian democracy. What do you think about the direction of the country? Is there anything Georgia could be doing differently, or better, or should it stop doing something in order to enhance its security and get closer to the West?
As I mentioned earlier, Georgia has nothing left to prove about NATO membership – from the security standpoint or from the military standpoint. The fact that Vice President Mike Pence was there over a year ago was a powerful demonstration of U.S. commitment to Georgia.
People with serious money, who want to invest, need to be confident that there is transparency on transactions, and reliability of legal structures.
I think, it is about transparency, about institutions that you would expect to have in a liberal democracy – electoral process, judicial process, and especially the business process. Georgia is on the cusp of exploding in a positive way economically. The Port of Anaklia, I think, has a chance to be something, and people with serious money, who want to invest, need to be confident that there is transparency on transactions, and reliability of legal structures. I think this will be very important, and will be a very positive thing for Georgia.
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