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U.S.-Russia Talks: What Are Georgia’s Options?

As the United States engages the Russian Federation concerning the Kremlin’s ultimatum aiming to change the configuration of European security, Georgia is among the countries whose fate is being decided. The process is likely to be drawn out, with the possibility of escalations that may serve as bargaining chips.

This raises questions about what Georgia can expect in terms of outcomes, and whether it can do anything other than sit in fearful anticipation as its northern neighbor blatantly demands to reimpose the sphere of influence logic.

Having gotten the West’s attention after a massive military deployment in and around Ukraine in late 2021, Russia is now seeking “security guarantees” — to be enshrined in concrete international treaties — that would preclude NATO expansion and curtail any other military activity close to Russia’s borders.

While all eyes are on Ukraine, which faces the risk of major military action, Georgia, whose leadership continues to keep the low public profile in unfolding conflict, has crept up on the agenda nonetheless. Russia’s key demand is for NATO to formally retract at its upcoming Madrid Summit the pledge made in Bucharest in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of the Alliance. Moscow also demands that the U.S. and allied forces abstain from bilateral military cooperation, military exercises, or other “military activities” on the territories of former Soviet states.

Unrealistic Demands

Georgia received multiple assurances from Washington not to reverse the NATO open doors policy or “negotiate about Georgia without Georgia.” Also, the U.S. vows to “not forego bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States,” or negotiate “about NATO without NATO.”

NATO allies further reaffirmed their commitments to keep the NATO doors open and respect sovereign choices of countries during the NATO-Russia Council.

Eka Akobia, International Relations expert and professor at Caucasus University and Tbilisi State University, says the U.S. had a logical response to Russia demanding from a superpower “to seal in a treaty the restriction of the choices of smaller states.”

“In the current world order, this kind of documented absurdity cannot be presented as a part of agenda in diplomatic negotiations or dialogue,” she tells Civil.ge, arguing that a treaty proposed by Russia directly infringes upon the principle of sovereignty, a pillar of international relations that has been recognized in Europe since the Treaty of Westphalia and which culminated in the United Nations charter. Thus, the expert believes that Russian demands, in this case, are “unrealistic” because the signing of such a treaty would go against the UN Charter principles.

High Time for West to Deliver?

But is the firm rejection of Russia’s demands West’s only way forward? According to Tina Khidasheli, who formerly served as Georgia’s Defense Minister, with a recent approach, Russian President Vladimir Putin now explicitly raised the issue “on something that he’s been handling from behind the closed doors all these years.”

In an interview with Civil.ge, Khidasheli argues that amid Russia’s actions in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and now Kazakhstan, the status-quo is already grim, and the question should be whether the West can use the current state of affairs to improve the situation.

“Sufficient time has passed since [Bucharest] for that promise to have been kept,” says the former Minister who thinks that in 14 years of merely assuring the two countries would become the NATO members, Allies should have already made the decisive move.

Georgia remembers the 2008 Bucharest summit well: despite the frustration of not receiving the much-longed Membership Action Plan (MAP) then, the country still celebrated the clear statement that the membership was offered. But Georgians felt that the vague promise, without any specific path of membership, has triggered Russia’s military aggression against the country a few months after the Summit. With hindsight, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have brought an increasing number of international analysts to share that assessment.

Since then, Russia has repeatedly expressed concerns over the West’s military build-up in its neighboring countries while the Alliance continuously reaffirmed for years that the Bucharest pledge was still there.

“The most simple, clear, and right response to Russia’s blackmail would be not to make further promises, but to act on the old ones,” says Khidasheli, who believes that western capitals need similarly assertive steps to convince Moscow that they are “serious about their motivation and firm in their decisions.”

Otherwise, she warns that crises will be followed by new crises with “more dramatic scenarios” than what happened in August 2008 in Georgia and six years later in Ukraine.

It’s What’s on the Inside that Matters

While both experts are counting on the United States not to let the friends down as talks proceed, they also agree that the Kremlin’s potential actions as these talks unfold are unpredictable and pose risks to Georgia as well as other neighboring countries.

The U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue is expected to continue for weeks and months to cover a wide range of security issues such as arms control frameworks. Deputy Secretary of the State Wendy Sherman, who led the January 10 round with her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov, also spoke about openness to discuss with Russia reciprocal steps to limit the size and scope of military exercises.

Amid these developments, Akobia and Khidasheli think the best Georgia can do is to focus on making progress in domestic democratic processes, which would make it easier for western partners to protect the country’s interests. The ruling Georgian Dream party repeatedly attracted international criticism over backtracking on vital democratic reforms.

“The only right way here is the irreversible pursuit of the European and Euro-Atlantic integration path and this is precisely where we are having problems,” Akobia says, suggesting Tbilisi should counterbalance the poor international environment by “doing its homework well.”

She believes that what the country needs in this process are domestic reforms pursuant to partnership frameworks with the West, rather than inputs into negotiating position of the western powers. It is only after doing its homework that Georgia can channel its best efforts to inform the partners through diplomatic missions about the good performance, she adds.

Khidasheli, too, thinks that Georgia currently is not making it easier for those western partners who have championed the idea of the country’s NATO membership over the years, arguing the country needs “to return to the path to democracy and democratic institutional stability.”

But the former Minister also sees the need to become more active and vocal, including by showing the European capitals the cost of unfair compromise for Georgia. “Our voice should be heard on the whole planet, from every leading newspaper, TV, at every table where Mr. Putin is talking to the West about the new world order.” Or “someone in the corridor may forget about us, and that would be a disaster,” she warns.

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