“We want to – and we will – continue to help Georgia fulfill its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, including membership in NATO,” he said after talks in Tbilisi Sunday with his Georgian counterpart, Irakli Alasania.
The question of Georgia – and Ukraine – joining NATO is a hugely contentious one, and viewed as a key contributing factor both to Russia’s war against Georgia six years ago and its intervention in Ukraine this year.
Hagel told reporters the Georgians should regard the Sept. 4-5 summit in Wales as having been a “significant victory for them,” highlighting a decision to name Georgia – along with Sweden, Finland, Jordan and Australia – as a NATO “enhanced partner.”
He said this gave Georgia significant “new standing,” along with opportunities to work with the alliance, citing military “training, equipping [and] partnership possibilities.”
Hagel reiterated that both he and President Obama had stressed at the summit “that the eventual membership for Georgia in NATO is something that we’re committed to.”
“Eventual” is the key word. It also appeared in the Wales Summit Declaration issued at the end of the gathering, which referred to Georgia moving “forward towards eventual membership.”
That’s the same message Georgia has been getting periodically ever since a summit in Bucharest in early 2008, when “membership action plans” (MAPs) – the formal roadmap to joining the alliance – were on the table for both Georgia and Ukraine.
The Bush administration pushed for approval, but Western European members leery of Moscow’s opposition baulked, and as NATO operates by consensus, rather than being offered MAPs the aspirants were told they would be able to join at some future, unspecified date.
Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia after its government tried to rein in two pro-Moscow separatist regions. The brief war ended with Georgia having lost one-fifth of its territory, with Russia propping up and recognizing as “independent” South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Some in NATO argued that the failure to give Georgia an MAP earlier that year emboldened the Kremlin to act in that manner; that it would have been less likely to have sent troops into a country officially on a NATO membership track. Others countered that even talking eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine had unnecessarily provoked Moscow.
Georgia’s government welcomed the country’s achievements at the Wales summit, although President Giorgi Margvelashvili also told the national public broadcaster he could not tell the country that a MAP was no longer necessary: “I don’t want to lie to society and say that we won’t need a MAP.”
The summit in Wales focused largely on Russia’s current intervention in Ukraine, widely seen in the West as a response to Ukraine’s aspirations for a European rather than Russia-dominated future.
The summit declaration expressed strong support for Ukraine, and for its “European aspiration,” but said nothing about eventual NATO membership
In his comments in Tbilisi, Hagel drew a clear line between U.S. support for Georgia and Russia’s behavior.
“The deepening ties between NATO and Georgia are especially important, given the dangerous and irresponsible actions of President [Vladimir] Putin,” he said. “His illegal annexation of Crimea, which the United States does not recognize, and the ongoing military campaign Russia is mounting in eastern Ukraine pose a grave threat to regional stability, as had its actions inside Georgia’s internationally-recognized borders” – a reference to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Hagel called again on Russia to withdraw troops from Georgian territory.
‘Regardless of geographic location’
Back in 1999, a NATO summit had declared that, “No European democratic country whose admission would fulfill the objectives of the [North Atlantic] Treaty will be excluded from consideration, regardless of its geographic location, each being considered on its own merits.”
Despite Russian objections to “losing” countries that were once allied to or part of the Soviet Union, NATO underwent three rounds of eastward expansion since then: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became members in 1999; Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia joined in 2004; followed by Albania and Croatia in 2009.
The notion of Ukraine and Georgia following suit has long been a red line to Putin. Even after the 2008 summit in Bucharest put their MAPs on hold, he informed the alliance that Russia viewed eventual membership for the two countries on its south-western flank as “a direct threat.”
Though not a member of NATO, Georgia has been a steadfast contributor to NATO-led missions for more than a decade, including in Kosovo peacekeeping roles, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, where it has often been the largest non-NATO troop contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – on many occasions providing more troops than even some NATO member-states.
Looking ahead, Georgia has offered to be involved in training and advising Afghan security forces in the post-ISAF, post-2014 era.
And in his joint press appearance with Hagel, Alasania also voiced support for a coalition-in-the-making to confront Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists who have seized control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.
“We fully support what the United States is doing to eradicate these barbarians,” he said, adding that Georgia’s security cabinet would discuss ways how best to contribute to the effort.
“The minister and I had a very good discussion on potential ways that Georgia could play an important role in this partnership with the United States, Iraq, and our coalition partners to destroy the ISIL threat,” Hagel said.
Other countries that have agreed to support the effort against ISIS, according to Secretary of State John Kerry speaking in Wales on Friday, include Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Turkey – all NATO members – as well as non-NATO partner Australia.