David J. Smith*
US Vice President Joe Biden stormed Tbilisi last week with a message of American support for Georgian territorial integrity, sovereignty and democracy. Biden told dinner guests at the residence of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that US President Barack Obama had sent him with “An unequivocal, clear, simple message to all who will listen, and those who even don't want to listen, that America stands with you at this moment and will continue to stand with you.” If Washington now backs its words with deeds, then Biden’s visit to Tbilisi could emerge as one of the most important moments in Georgian history.
The stage was set before Air Force Two—the Vice President’s airplane—landed in Tbilisi. On June 22—before Obama visited Moscow—the White House announced the Biden visit to Georgia. This indicates that, as Obama traveled to Russia on July 6, he had already decided that Georgia was non-negotiable. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s glower at a July 7 breakfast at his dacha said it all—whatever resetting US-Russian relations means; Obama told Putin that it will not mean a Russian special sphere of influence over the former Soviet empire.
Then, on July 23, Biden told the Georgian Parliament that, as Obama “Reasserted two weeks ago in Moscow, we stand by the principle that sovereign democracies have the right to make their own decisions, and choose their own partnerships and their own alliances. We stand against the 19th Century notion of spheres of influence. It has no place in the 21st Century.”
Biden continued, “We understand that Georgia aspires to join NATO. We fully support that aspiration. And, members of Parliament, we will work to help you meet the standards of NATO membership.”
Biden delivered his speech with conviction and in friendship. “We are grateful,” he said, “to Georgia's soldiers who stand next to ours, and are being trained now to stand with ours in Afghanistan.” He even quoted 19th Century Georgian patriot Ilia Chavchavadze. His audience reciprocated with many standing ovations.
Despite Biden’s clarity, an anonymous “senior American official” mumbled to the press that Biden had privately told Georgian officials that the US would not provide Georgia with military equipment.
Biden said no such thing. On July 23, US Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley set the record straight in response to a press question: “Georgia is on a path that the United States supports toward NATO membership. Clearly, a fundamental tenet of NATO membership is to have a military that meets NATO standards and would add to the capability of the alliance. So it is logical that the United States would have a military-to-military relationship with Georgia. Obviously, it becomes increasingly important, given the current situation in and around that country.”
The anonymous senior American official would be unworthy of mention but that his or her whisper to the press indicates that there is still debate inside the US Government about what concrete actions Washington must now undertake to back Biden’s words.
What Washington decides about US-Georgian military cooperation and how it reacts to any Russian aggressive move will be the most important indicators of whether Biden’s visit was an historic occasion.
The Georgian Armed Forces (GAF) need modern command and control, air defense and anti-armor capabilities, including doctrine, organization, training and—make no mistake—weapons.
Some in Washington—presumably the anonymous senior American official among them—will argue that such assistance to Georgia would be provocative to Russia, short-circuiting the desired reset in US-Russian relations. Moscow will surely promote this view.
This argument runs counter to Georgian and American interests and is logically flawed. Before last August, the US had not provided such capabilities to the GAF. Nonetheless, Moscow invented different provocations and attacked Georgia. Now, as then, American demurral will not deter Russia.
But Obama’s reset policy will founder unless Russian tanks remain still. And that is more likely if America calmly but decisively helps build a GAF whose capability to delay, resist and inflict significant damage upon an invader deter aggressive schemes hatched in Beli Dom, headquarters of Russia’s prime minister.
It is time to fill in the defense section of the US-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership, a framework agreement signed last January.
Meanwhile, although Washington has likely dampened Moscow’s ardor for another full-scale attack, Putin is likely to launch some kind of aggressive mischief to remind Obama and Biden that Russia remains a big player in Georgia. How America reacts will be crucial.
Washington will debate these matters and much more. In that process, Georgia could not have a better friend than Joe Biden. If he engages with the same heart with which he addressed the Georgian people, then Washington will make the right decisions and Vice President Biden’s visit to Tbilisi will prove to have been historic.
(Published in Tbilisi 24 Saati July 28, 2009)
*David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.
Biden Visit Could Be Historic