Opinion: In this op-ed, Dennis Sammut says that the visit of US Vice President Mike Pence to Georgia was a game changer. "It can help to make the Russians more aware of US and NATO commitment to Georgia. It gives the Georgians some comfort with regards to their security concerns. It should also give them more confidence to engage more with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of a process to find a lasting and peaceful solution to the region's conflicts."
United States Vice President Mike Pence this week conducted a whirlwind trip to three parts of Europe that have in recent years and months been the subject of overt bullying by an assertive Russian military. The Vice President visited Estonia, in the Baltic region, Georgia, in the Caucasus and Montenegro, in the Balkans. In all three countries, he heard local leader's concerns about Russian pressures, and expressed unequivocal US support. It was a show of commitment, it was necessary, and it was overdue.
Friends of the United States that are closest geographically to Russia have been feeling the heat of Russian pressure for years. But things seem to have got worse in the last year as Russia tried to use the opportunity offered because of a troubled political process in Washington to score advantages. Smaller countries, such as Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro seem to have been particularly targeted.
Often in his speeches during the trip, Vice president Pence emphasised that he was visiting on behalf of President Trump. His speeches however sounded more as if he was visiting on behalf of the Pentagon. The American military and security establishment is deeply worried about the shenanigans going on in the White House and the havoc it is causing among the country's closest allies. In some respect therefore, Pence's visit was a damage limitation exercise, an attempt to calm nerves and send a message to the Russians that the US still cared about these regions, and will act if their future is threathened. But this was only part of the story. In Estonia and in Montenegro - both NATO members, all Pence had to do was to remind everyone that as NATO members these countries benefited from the collective defence blanket that is the core of the North Atlantic Treaty. It is unlikely that the Russian's had forgotten, but the reminder was timely anyway.
It is in Georgia however that Pence's visit can be seen as a potential game-changer. Georgia is not a NATO member despite its enthusiasm to join the alliance. It has experienced first-hand Russian aggression, formalised with the establishment of Russian protectorates in the secessionist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has failed to honour its commitments in the framework of the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreement in the aftermath of the August 2008 Georgia-Russia war, which resulted in further encroachment on Georgian territory. And even in recent weeks the process of encroachment continues as Russia tries to align the territory of the self-declared republic of South Ossetia to that of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast under Soviet times - a visible expression that President Putin has more regard for Soviet law than he has for international law.
Pence's visit to Georgia came nearly nine years to the day of the August 2008 Georgia-Russia War, and coincided (or more likely was timed to coincide) with the largest military exercises NATO has ever held in Georgia.
Heavy American military equipment of the US 2nd Cavalry Regiment, including tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles, landed on Georgia's Black Sea coast days before Pence's arrival, and were transported by rail, or driven, to the Vaziani Military base at the centre of the country where the military drills are ongoing, lasting until 12 August. On their way, they passed within a few hundred meters of Russian troops.
This, some may claim, was just theatrics. In part this is true, but it is the sort of theatrics that the present Russian leadership understands. Remember the visit of president Putin to Baku in 2013, with the entire Russian Caspian flotilla anchored in Baku harbour, or Putin's visit to the military base in Gyumri in Armenia, and his speech on why Russian leaders should not give up what they inherited from their grandfathers. The NATO show of strength would therefore not have gone unnoticed in Moscow.
In Georgia, Vice President Pence made the clearest US commitment yet to Georgia, its independence and territorial integrity, and its NATO membership aspirations regardless of Russian opposition to it. "We are with you", he told Georgian leaders - twice, in case they missed it the first time. Standing in front of an American tank a few kilometres away from where Russia deploys illegally thousands of its troops in South Ossetia, Pence declared:
"Today, we recommit ourselves to the cause of security, prosperity and liberty for the people of Georgia," Pence said. "We renew our pledge to stand together in unity, as partners and as friends. To one day, stand together as Allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization."
And to make sure there was no ambiguity, he later tweeted,
"To be clear: The United States of America strongly condemns Russia's occupation of Georgia's soil."
All this was, given the present reality, necessary. A clear message has been sent. The Russians will fail to understand it at their own peril.
One needs however to add some words of caution.
The charge of the US Cavalry, from their bases in Germany to the heart of the Caucasus was painfully slow and logistically cumbersome. US support for Georgia's defence remains more symbolic than tangible, simply because defending the country, given its geographical location, is not easy. It is likely that membership or not, NATO has some contingency planning of how it can support Georgia in case of Russian aggression. In the present configuration however, even if the political will is there, it would be something difficult to implement. The military folk understand these constraints well, and their political masters should do so too.
This week many senior Georgian officials were feeling quite smug with what they were able to achieve - getting Vice President Pence to visit Georgia was already a success; his clear and unambiguous speeches were more than they expected, and they were clearly delighted. It will however be a big, even fatal, mistake if the Georgian authorities read more in the US expression of support than they should.
For domestic political purposes, it is important to remember that ever since the time of Eduard Shevardnadze Georgia's best friends in the US were in the Pentagon. It is more than likely that Pence was in Georgia primarily at the Pentagon's behest. Georgian leaders need to interpret the visit for domestic political purposes in a responsible way.
More significantly, Georgian leaders should not interpret Pence's visit or his statements, as a carte blanche for adventurism, as may have happened in the past. Present Georgian leaders have shown more caution, and have overall acted responsibly. But one senses the presence of itchy fingers in some quarters. They need to be reminded that Pence in his speeches also spoke on the importance of dialogue. Tbilisi has not yet exhausted all possibilities of dialogue with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, and remains overly concerned with the formalities, and less with the substance. Georgian leaders need to see their strengthened hand as a chance to show magnanimity.
The visit of Vice President Pence to Georgia is potentially a game changer. It can help to make the Russians more aware of US and NATO commitment to Georgia. It gives the Georgians some comfort with regards to their security concerns and brings their NATO membership asspirations firmly back onm the agenda. It should also give them more confidence to engage more with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of a process to find a lasting and peaceful solution to the region's conflicts.
Dennis Sammut is the director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research). He contributed this op-ed for commonspace.eu. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
photo: Vice President Mike Pence and American and Georgian troops at Exercise Noble Partner, August 1, 2017; Official White House Photo by Myles D. Cullen. (picture courtesy of the White House)
European Commissioner Johannes Hahn held discussions with officials from the South Caucasus on the margins of the Munich Security Conference