One point I made yesterday was announcing the “frozen conflicts” were reason enough to keep Georgia out of NATO encourages Russia to continue to stir up trouble.
If the “frozen conflicts” were clearly enough to keep Georgia out of NATO, Russia would probably have been satisfied with the pre-war status quo. NATO sent a very different message at the Bucharest summit: NATO endorsed future Georgian membership in spite of the “frozen conflicts.” The “frozen conflicts” were among the “questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications.” The outcome of the Bucharest summit dangerously encouraged Georgia to expect membership in the alliance, which created the impression that Georgia could expect meaningful help from Western governments in a crisis. The text of the summit declaration affirmed, “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” This is one of the things that led to worsening Russian-Georgian tensions that year, and eventually to armed conflict. If the Russian goal in 2008 was to prevent Georgian membership, surely it is the promise of membership made at Bucharest and not caveats about the “frozen conflicts” that was responsible for triggering an adverse Russian reaction. It seems very likely that reviving hope of Georgian membership would lead to worsening tensions once again.
On the other side, Saakashvili misinterpreted the signs of support Georgia had received from the U.S. and NATO. As Thomas de Waal explained earlier this week:
In 2008, he [Saakashvili] selectively interpreted the messages he was getting from Washington that he had strong U.S. support but should back away from a looming confrontation with Moscow over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and he led Georgia into a disastrous and unwinnable war with Russia. When his Western allies understandably chose not to intervene to help him fight, Saakashvili complained of betrayal.
I don’t think we can reconsider the wisdom of bringing Georgia into NATO unless we account for Georgian mistakes in 2008. The Georgian government bore a large part of the responsibility for the escalation of conflict, and it escalated the conflict because it mistakenly believed that it would have Western backing. Saakashvili made that misjudgment on the basis of mostly rhetorical encouragement. Moving Georgia closer to membership in the Atlantic alliance would give a future Georgian government that much more reason to expect Western support. Bringing Georgia into NATO while Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain as Moscow’s satellites still makes no sense. Assuming that Georgia would not be admitted until the territorial disputes with Abkhazia and South Ossetia were resolved, Georgia’s membership would be delayed for as long as Moscow and the satellite governments wished to keep the dispute from being resolved.
Mandel argues that the “frozen conflict” objection is no longer valid:
Germany’s position–which is refuted most effectively by its own history–should be reexamined now that Georgia and Russia have signed a border-control agreement.
As Mandel must know, the agreement was a compromise to facilitate Russian accession into the WTO. Saakashvili’s White House visit was partly a reward for Georgian cooperation on that issue. The agreement did not resolve the larger disputes and was designed to avoid them as much as possible, and neither Tbilisi nor Moscow has budged or shows any signs of budging on their positions regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Worse than being unresolved “frozen conflicts,” the two statelets have been carved out of Georgia, recognized as independent by Moscow, and turned into Russian protectorates even more than they already were in 2008. The “reintegration” of the separatist republics is less likely than ever. If it seemed unwise to consider Georgian membership before, it makes even less sense now.
Reviving talk of Georgian membership in NATO isn’t going to make a resolution of Georgia’s territorial disputes more likely, and it certainly isn’t going to give the Russians any reason to withdraw the military forces they have placed in these territories. It does seem a guaranteed way to sour U.S.-Russian relations and to create worsening tensions between Russia and Georgia. Should a new crisis erupt, it will be the people in Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia that will suffer the most. As for the U.S. and NATO, we have no interests that are served by Georgian membership. The risks and liabilities of bringing Georgia into NATO are many and clear, and the advantages continue to be as elusive as ever.
Update: Michael Cecire made some interesting observations about the importance of Georgian democratization in response to Saakashvili’s White House visit:
If Georgia is seen as jettisoning its commitment to democracy, as is increasingly agreed-upon in U.S. policy circles, Tbilisi’s importance as a local ally diminishes greatly — choosing between an authoritarian Russia and an authoritarian Georgia is no choice at all for most Washington planners.