Georgia and NATO: Close cooperation but no membership

Analysis 3 August 2022
Georgia and NATO: Close cooperation but no membership

Georgia, along with Ukraine, was promised NATO membership at the 2008 Bucharest Summit but fourteen years on, both countries are still waiting to be allowed into the alliance. In the wake of the Ukraine war, Georgia who, over the years, experienced three wars including Russia, is reiterating its interest in joining NATO - writes Katarzyna Rybarczyk.

Pushing for the membership more intensively comes as voices emerge saying that had NATO’s membership promise to Ukraine materialised earlier, maybe the ongoing Russian invasion could have been avoided.

‘I am absolutely convinced, and I have said it before, that if Ukraine had been part of NATO before the war, there would have been no war. I believe in this,’ said Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

With Finland and Sweden receiving an official invitation to join the alliance after the latest summit that took place in Madrid on June 28-30, NATO enlargement is in the cards. And yet, Georgia’s accession prospects remain slim.

Despite waiting significantly longer than the Nordic states, instead of being invited to join, Georgia was told that it would receive ‘tailored political and practical’ support. 

Georgia is one of NATO’s closest partners and has been actively involved in a number of NATO-led missions such as Operation Active Endeavour, a maritime surveillance operation designed to counter terrorism and prevent the movement of weapons in the Mediterranean, or NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Besides, ‘Georgia fulfills almost all criteria to become a member of NATO,’ according to what Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO General Secretary, said a while back.

So, why is Georgia stuck in what appears to be a permanent limbo?

Firstly, with Russia occupying two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s territorial integrity hinders accession talks.

‘We believe that Georgia should continue on its Euro-Atlantic path, and whenever Georgia is ready to access NATO, it will do so, although I don't think there is a possibility to integrate just one part of Georgia,’ said NATO representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, Javier Colomina.  

Just like the conflict in Donbas prevented Ukraine from joining NATO long before the currently happening war began, resolution of territorial disputes is a factor affecting Georgia’s chances of moving towards membership.

NATO is reluctant to welcome states whose territorial sovereignty is compromised as, considering the alliance’s mutual defense obligations, doing so could jeopardise the security of other members and trigger a large-scale military conflict.

Next, the pace of Georgia implementing the necessary reforms is slow and influenced by politial polarisation, which manifests itself through rising tensions between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the main opposition force, the United National Movement party.

After the 2020 Georgian parliamentary election, the country has found itself in a political deadlock and has been drifting away from democracy. Although both Georgian Dream and United National Movement support Georgia’s ambitions to attain the NATO candidate status, their fierce power struggle has been standing in the way of effectively implementing necessary reforms.

Over the last year-and-half especially, progress on this front has stalled, said Javier Colomina this past May, adding that ‘NATO is concerned with the level of implementation of the reforms we have been requesting.’

As indicated by the official, unless Georgia wants to keep watching other countries jumping ahead of it in line to join the alliance, it needs to solve its problems and affirm its commitment to meeting all NATO requirements.

Finally, allowing Georgia in now could be a counterproductive move that risks weakening NATO instead of making it stronger. When Finland and Sweden got invited to join the alliance, Vladimir Putin warned them about ‘serious military and political consequences’ should they proceed with deploying military contingents and military infrastructure.

As Putin said, however, Russia does not have ‘territorial differences’ with these two countries. This, unfortunately, is not the case with Georgia where one fifth of the territory is occupied by Russia and where the Kremlin has tens of thousands troops.

Hence, expansion to include Georgia would undeniably be seen by Putin as a more immediate threat to Russia.

NATO recognises that Russia is ‘the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability’ and, for the time being, it is unlikely that it will offer Georgia membership, thus potentially drawing all NATO member states into a war with Russia.

Enlargement to the East could have devastating consequences and, as the bloodshed in Ukraine continues, now is not the time to fuel Putin’s anger. It seems, therefore, that there is a long wait ahead of Georgia before its NATO aspirations are fulfilled.

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service. She covers humanitarian issues and conflicts.