As 2023 draws to a close Civil.ge sat down with the Head of NATO Liaison Office in Georgia Alexander Vinnikov to discuss the NATO-Georgia integration, achievements and challenges, Georgia’s reforms, NATO’s view of the Black Sea and the Alliance’s priorities for the near future.
Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule and agreeing to this interview. I think that for readers and also viewers of Civil.Ge, it will be very interesting to find out more about how NATO-Georgia relations progress. It’s the end of the year, and it’s a good time to take stock. So the first question I would like to start with…How did NATO-Georgia relations develop in 2023? And in this context: just yesterday and the day before, Georgia hosted the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Javier Colomina. What can you tell us about this visit as well, beyond the official information that we have? What’s your assessment and what were the main results of the visit?
Well, thank you very much for having me, first of all. It’s a pleasure to be with you. Indeed, it is the end of the year, and it has been a very momentous and busy year for all of us, for Georgia, for NATO, and for the international community. But I think what’s important to underline is that Georgia remains one of NATO’s closest partners. And the support of NATO and NATO Allies for Georgia, both the political and practical support remains as strong as ever, against the backdrop of course of the continued Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, which represents the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security. This year has seen many highlights in the NATO-Georgia relationship. There have been many high-level visits from NATO headquarters to Brussels. You mentioned the latest one, which took place just this week. There have also been important meetings of the NATO Georgia Commission in Brussels, for which high-level Georgian officials have traveled. Georgia was also present at the latest Summit that we held in Vilnius in the summer.
I would say that the dialogue and the practical cooperation continue to be at a very high level.
I would say that the dialogue and the practical cooperation continue to be at a very high level. We celebrated a milestone in our practical cooperation when a boarding team from the Georgian Coast Guard participated in the NATO maritime security operation called Sea Guardian. That was the first time a partner nation had participated in this particular operation, so it was a historic event in that sense.
And also we have continued working on the implementation of the Tailored Support measures, which were agreed at the Madrid Summit last year, particularly through the enhanced Substantial NATO Georgia package- the SNGP.
With regard to the Special Representative’s latest visit, this was his second visit to Georgia this year. I think this one was a particularly productive one coming right after the historic decision by the EU Council to grant Georgia candidate status. So there was a very, I would say, optimistic and positive mood as the backdrop to the visit. He was able to see all the senior officials, the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, the Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, as well as opposition representatives.
And he engaged in public diplomacy activities as well, meeting with students, meeting with the media, and interacting with public broadcasters as well. So I think it was a very positive visit. One of the key messages and the key outcomes, I think, from the visit is that NATO and the EU are really two sides of the same coin.
…Any progress that Georgia makes towards the EU is also progress that Georgia makes towards eventual NATO membership.
The special representative underlined that fact. And he encouraged the Georgian authorities and also the opposition, all stakeholders, to use the momentum generated by this historic decision to also make progress on the Euro-Atlantic track. Because any progress that Georgia makes towards the EU is also progress that Georgia makes towards eventual NATO membership.
Thank you so much for this summary. In this context, I would like to ask you about the assessments by some experts and representatives of the opposition who argue that the momentum for Georgia’s NATO integration has somewhat waned in recent years. And this perception is shared by some longstanding Georgian partners as well. For example, the Estonian Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, said in an interview with RFL this summer that, in her view, the leadership of Georgia right now “does not really believe in NATO membership so that they don’t really push agenda that much.” And those who agree with that statement cite various criteria such as the number of high level visits or NATO- integration related messages or lack of thereof, and of the visibility of this issue in the Georgian political discourse.
Or sometimes even the rhetoric that is damaging to NATO integration goals. Suffice it to recall the prime minister’s remarks at the GLOBSEC Forum this year when he when asked by moderator why he thought Russia started the war with Ukraine in 2022 said, and I quote:” I think everyone knows the reason one of the main reasons was NATO NATO enlargement.” And this kind of rhetoric of course has not gone unnoticed. What do you think of such an assessment of the diminished integration momentum. Does it hold value?
Well, I think it’s important to remember that ever since Allies decided that Georgia will become a member of NATO back in 2008 at the Bucharest Summit, since then Georgia has had an annual national program at its disposal, which is really the main instrument it has to get closer to NATO. And through this ANP process, Georgia has a strategic roadmap for reforms on which then Allies make recommendations and provide guidance to Georgia to help it get closer to the requirements for NATO membership. And throughout these years, Georgia has made impressive progress in a range of areas, particularly, of course, in the transformation of its defense and security sector. However, more needs to be done.
We have publicly and privately expressed concern in recent years at the slowdown of the implementation of key reforms in areas such as judicial reform, electoral reform, media freedoms, other fundamental freedoms, democratic oversight of the security sector.
And we have publicly and privately expressed concern in recent years at the slowdown of the implementation of key reforms in areas such as judicial reform, electoral reform, media freedoms, other fundamental freedoms, democratic oversight of the security sector. All of these issues are important to Allies when it comes to an aspirant country because these are all values that we expect our aspirant partners and future Allies to share. That is why we continue to encourage Georgia, not only the government, but all stakeholders to play constructive roles in helping Georgia implement these very difficult but necessary reforms.
When Special Representative Colomina was in Tbilisi this week, he encouraged his interlocutors to use the momentum generated by the EU candidate status to implement those difficult reforms because they will benefit not only Georgia itself, obviously, but also European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
The nine steps that the EU now expects Georgia to implement in the next year overlap to a very large extent with those reforms that we have recommended through the ANP process.
The nine steps that the EU now expects Georgia to implement in the next year overlap to a very large extent with those reforms that we have recommended through the ANP process. So we look forward to seeing significant progress in the upcoming months and we stand ready to continue supporting Georgia on that path.
Yes, indeed. I think it’s sometimes forgotten that…NATO is not only a military organization, but it’s also a political organization. Therefore, reforms not only in defense, but also reforms in terms of institution building and democracy and rule of law also matter.
Absolutely. Because of course, it’s not just the Ministry of Defense of a country or its defense forces that join the alliance, it’s the entire state. And that is why NATO as a values-based alliance and a political-military organization, pays a lot of attention to all the areas that you highlighted.
This year’s NATO Summit in Vilnius focused largely on Russia’s war in Ukraine. And in the run-up to the Summit, there was a talk of it being a possible window of opportunity for Georgia to attract more attention and advance its bid for NATO membership. However, this did not happen. And Georgia came out with a weaker communique language and no political or practical deliverables, really. Why do you think that happened? And do you think that Georgia can expect more at the next 2024 Summit in Washington? And in that context, would you say Ukraine and Georgia are or are not in the same enlargement basket right now?
Well, I think the Vilnius Summit was a very important Summit that was focused on implementation of the historic decisions taken in Madrid at the previous Summit. So of course, as you mentioned, Ukraine featured very prominently on the agenda and in particular Allies decided to adopt three decisions to take forward the partnership with Ukraine. First of all, they agreed on package of assistance which is geared towards ensuring Ukraine’s full interoperability with the alliance. Secondly, they established the NATO-Ukraine Council where Ukraine and all Allies sit as equals around the table and the Council has already been used quite extensively. And the third big item on the agenda of the Summit was China and the definition of China as a strategic competitor to the alliance.
The very close and deepening relationship with Indo-Pacific partners of NATO was underlined with their presence at the Summit as well. And I think it was also important that Allies reiterated their commitment to the Open Door policy, particularly in the context of the recent accession of Finland and, as we hope, very soon the accession of Sweden as the 32nd ally.
As for Georgia, I think it was very positive that Georgia was at the Summit. It attended a special format with the “partners at risk”, as we call them. So Georgia, Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, those partners that have been granted these tailored support measures last year. And also in the communique, Georgia’s aspirations were fully reiterated the commitment to the Bucharest Summit decision that Georgia will be a member in the future was once again reiterated as it has been at every single Summit since. And also the Communique talked about the the need to make progress on reforms including key democratic reforms and I think this is significant because as we already discussed Allies pay close attention to Georgia’s progress towards the requirements for eventual NATO membership.
Looking ahead at the next Summit, which will again be a historic summit as it will take place in Washington DC, the place where 75 years ago the North Atlantic Treaty was originally signed, this will be an anniversary Summit, but it will also be a forward-looking Summit to get the Alliance ready for the near and longer term future. And again, we are talking about commitments to strengthening deterrence and defense. We are talking about strengthening partnerships and of course, also strengthening further support to Ukraine for as long as it takes to ensure that Ukraine prevails against Russia’s war of aggression.
As to Georgia, it’s too early to discuss formats because discussions have not started yet on what formats will involve partners at the Summit. Of course, partnerships will be one of the focus areas of the Summit and I would expect all of our key partners to be present in some way, shape or form. But I think it’s too early to speculate about concrete formats or levels.
What’s important is that Georgia use the time between now and the [Washington] Summit to demonstrate concrete progress on some of the key reform areas that are part of the annual national program process.
What’s important is that Georgia use the time between now and the Summit to demonstrate concrete progress on some of the key reform areas that are part of the annual national program process. And the next Annual National Program assessment will be shared by Allies with the Georgian authorities early next year. And so we hope to see the momentum of the EU decision being carried over into the Euro-Atlantic reform agenda as well.
What do you think were the main highlights of the 2023 Georgia-NATO relations and of the visibility of those relations?
I think that this year was again a very eventful year in NATO-Georgia relations and testimony to that is the considerable number of high-level visits paid by NATO officials to Georgia. We’ve had two visits by the special representative for the Caucasus in Central Asia, Javier Colomina, which we already discussed. We also had two visits by another special representative of the secretary general of NATO for Women, Peace and Security, Ms. Irene Fellin, who came to discuss the implementation and the promotion of the Women, Peace and Security agenda in Georgia. We’ve also had a visit by the Deputy Assistant Secretary General, James Apathurai, who came to discuss emerging security challenges and how to strengthen our cooperation in the areas of cyber, hybrid, energy security, and scientific cooperation, for instance.
Georgian contribution in Afghanistan was very significant and highly valued by Allies.
And of course, just last month, we had a very large-scale visit by the entire NATO military committee, led by the Chair of the Military Committee, who is the highest-ranking military official in the Alliance. And that Military Committee visit was also very important to take stock of the military-to-military cooperation that continues a pace between NATO and Georgia. Also to visit the Joint Training and Evaluation Center, the JTEC, which is a unique institution that Georgia hosts. To observe an interagency exercise, Didgori- 23, which many representatives were impressed by.
And of course also to discuss with Georgia the implementation of the defense reforms and the transformation of the Georgian defense forces, as well as the interoperability, which of course remains high, including through many years of jointly operating in environments such as Afghanistan, where the Georgian contribution was very significant and highly valued by Allies. And that continues now also in the formats of the Operation Sea Guardian, where Georgia contributes a boarding team, and also in the NATO Response Force, which Georgia supports with some of its capabilities. So I think there have been quite a few highlights.
When it comes to the implementation of the SNGP, again we made progress on several initiatives including cyber, secure communications, military engineering. We added two new initiatives on CBRN defense and training facilities and implementation of those has also been starting. So a lot of movement both very practical and also political. So I think it’s overall it’s been a productive year and we look forward to next year, which will be at least as important a year for both Georgia, of course, with the elections coming up, but also with the reform agenda and the nine steps recommended by the EU, and the 75th anniversary of NATO, as well as the 10th anniversary of existence of the SNGP in Georgia. We will also be sure to mark that appropriately.
You mentioned the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and indeed this was a mission where Georgia was the largest per capita and one of the largest troop contributors overall. And it was also a very important element in our integration process into NATO. Now that the mission is over, do you think Georgia can compensate for this visibility that it used to have with participating in that mission?
Georgia continues very strong mill-to-mill cooperation. It continues working on the interoperability between the Georgian defense forces and NATO armed forces. So I think this shows once again that Georgia is a reliable contributor to international security. And that is indeed the track record that it has built up through the many years of contributions to NATO-led missions and operations. We always remember that Georgia paid a high price for contributing to our common security in Afghanistan, with over 30 service members paying the ultimate price.
I think NATO Allies are very cognizant of that and very appreciative. But the high level of continued integration, I think, makes it clear that the interoperability that has been developed between Georgia and NATO remains and has to be further increased. And that’s what we are focusing on.
My next question is about the Black Sea, the Black Sea region, which is becoming increasingly important for both the EU and NATO. This is true in terms of hard security, as the war in Ukraine has once again demonstrated, but also in terms of energy, trade and digital connectivity between Asia and Europe. In the case of the EU, the change in attitude towards the Black Sea is reflected in a reorientation of its enlargement policy. For NATO, it is reflected in a number of measures of strengthening the Alliance’s Eastern flank. The new Strategic Concept also mentions the importance of the Black Sea. But would you say that NATO is doing enough in this direction? Is there anything more that needs to be done?
Indeed, the new Strategic Concept, which was agreed at the Madrid Summit last year, for the first time ever, mentions the Black Sea. And it describes the Black Sea as an area of strategic importance for the Alliance as a whole. And I think this is very significant development, because of course, three NATO Allies are literal states of the Black Sea -Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, and two literal states are very close partners of NATO- Ukraine and Georgia. So, clearly being mentioned in the second most important document that NATO has – the Strategic Concept- is already a significant evolution. Now, ever since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and by that I mean already the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea back in 2014, NATO has increased its presence in and around the Black Sea.
There is increasing awareness of the importance of the Black Sea and also increasing action that is being taken at the concrete level, both within the Alliance and our planning and in our relations with partners, particularly with the Black Sea partners.
And of course, particularly after the full-scale invasion began, we have paid even more attention to that strategic region. There are, as you know, two new battle groups that have been created in Romania and Bulgaria. There are more overflights over the Black Sea. The US has deployed additional F-16s to Romania to help with air policing in that region. I think it shows that NATO is determined to defend every Ally and every inch of allied territory. In Madrid we also reflected on the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the countries in the Black Sea region and also made a commitment to further strengthen their resilience and their defense capabilities. So, there is increasing awareness of the importance of the Black Sea and also increasing action that is being taken at the concrete level, both within the Alliance and our planning and in our relations with partners, particularly with the Black Sea partners.
My next question is about public diplomacy and countering propaganda, because this is one of the main directions of work of the NATO Liaison Office and a very important one as well. There is a trend that we are observing that what we used to call Russian propaganda is echoed or repeated sometimes by the government authorities themselves. For example, the Georgian Dream Chair Kobakhidze said this summer that Georgia should not be envious that Ukraine can be accepted to NATO without the MEP, membership action plan, adding, and I quote “if the basis of differentiation is whether a country is at war, we cannot do anything about that. Our collective opposition, the Ukrainian government, a number of foreign experts and politicians demanded that, but we wouldn’t do that” – repeating the narrative that “unnamed foreign forces” are trying to drag Georgia into war. How do you counter Russian propaganda if it is repeated by the officials as well? Does this make your job more challenging when countering this kind of narratives?
Well, as you pointed out, the NATO Liaison Office, which was opened back in 2010 in Georgia, has a mandate that includes public diplomacy. It’s one of the three key areas of our engagement, alongside our dialogue wide range of stakeholders and our support to capacity building programs in Georgia. Public diplomacy is the third pillar that we engage in. It’s even more important now in the current context of Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and the disinformation that accompanies it.
Propaganda is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for centuries. But of course, with the spread of the digital means of communication, it becomes even more potent and [it’s] therefore even more crucial to counter these efforts. NATO’s basic approach to countering disinformation and propaganda is not to have counter propaganda, but to basically fight propaganda with facts.
That’s what we are doing at the central level through NATO Headquarters, which has a very good effort in terms of the NATO website, where we debunk many of the Russian propaganda myths about the alliance. We also do it here at the local level in Georgia through direct engagement with target audiences, with youth, with religious leaders with ethnic minority communities. We focus a lot on the regions of Georgia because there’s a lot of information available in Tbilisi, but perhaps it’s more challenging in some of the regions, particularly those that rely more on some Russian language outlets. So we try to focus our efforts there. We work also with a range of partners, both from the government and from civil society in promoting awareness about NATO, promoting awareness about the benefits of NATO-Georgia cooperation, and of course countering these false narratives, including anti-Western narratives, which are not only an issue in Georgia, they are an issue in many countries, including our own countries. That is why this is a joint challenge that we also have to tackle jointly, including with the Georgian authorities.
The Secretary General before the Vilnius Summit, as well as his Special Representative, Javier Colomina, during his visit to Tbilisi in May this year, stressed that NATO believes that both – NATO members and partners – should support Ukraine, as well as maintain sanctions against the aggressor, Russia, to not make it easier for Russia to finance and organize its war against Ukraine. How do you assess Georgia’s efforts in this direction?
Indeed, NATO Allies are fully committed to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes to ensure that Ukraine prevails against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war of aggression. And we expect partners to do their utmost to support Ukraine in those endeavors as well.
We expect partners to do their utmost to support Ukraine…
We are aware of the different areas in which Georgia is supporting Ukraine, politically, in the humanitarian field. We encourage Georgia to continue and further increase that. Georgia is also part of the Rammstein Defense Support Group for Ukraine. We also encourage all of the members of that group to to do whatever they can to help Ukraine. Because, as we all know, this is the defining moment, this is the defining conflict of our times. And it’s very important, obviously, to be on the right side of history on this one.
I couldn’t agree more. And my last question would be more on a personal note. You have been in Georgia for two years now. How have your expectations of Georgia fare vis-à-vis the reality? Any surprises there?
I had high expectations of Georgia, having already been acquainted somewhat with your culture, your gastronomy and proud cultural history, also having previously visited Georgia. But I think those expectations have been fully met and in some cases even exceeded because I have now been able to travel around the country, not as much as I’d like, but still as much as I could.
I’ve been particularly inspired, by the young generation and the determination that they have to build a Georgia that is even more modern, even more aligned with Western values and really part of the European and Euro-Atlantic family.
And I’ve been really blown away by some of the amazing parts of Georgia that I’ve seen, the people that I’ve met and interacted with. I’ve been particularly inspired, by the young generation and the determination that they have to build a Georgia that is even more modern, even more aligned with Western values and really part of the European and Euro-Atlantic family. So, it’s been a privilege to be able to contribute to Georgia’s integration into that family where it belongs. And I look forward to continuing to do that in the months and years to come.
Thank you very much and happy new year! And thank you for this interview again.
Thank you very much and all the best and happy holidays to you and to all of your viewers and readers. By the way, I am one of the readers of Civil.ge and I very much appreciate the professionalism of your team and the great work that you’re doing. So all the best in continuing that next year.