In the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia has played a pivotal role in the competition for influence between Russia and the West over what was once Soviet territory. In 2003, Georgia underwent a Western-supported transition, known as the Rose Revolution, which brought the pro-European Union and pro-NATO government of Mikhail Saakashvili. In 2008, Russia responded by initiating the Russo-Georgia War. With this, Moscow intended to both counter Georgia's Western orientation and make plain NATO's unwillingness to come to Tbilisi's defense. This strategy worked. The Saakashvili government had failed in its bid to seriously integrate Georgia into NATO and provoked Russia's ire. This failure led, in 2012, to the emergence of Bidzina Ivanishvili's more pragmatic Georgian Dream government, which favored maintaining a cooperative approach toward Moscow.
This past year has seen yet another swing in the competition over Georgia. The crisis in Ukraine has pulled a number of countries closer to the West — Georgia among them. Along with Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia has signed the key Association and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. Tbilisi has also continued to pursue NATO membership. At the beginning of the 2000s, NATO was divided and Russia was resurgent. This is no longer the case. Today, the military alliance is more interested in directly engaging with Georgia.
The Dec. 4 visit of NATO Secretary General's Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai to Georgia made these changes apparent. Appathurai met with Georgian leaders, including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, and said that significant progress had been made in implementing the cooperation package, which Georgia endorsed at the most recent NATO summit in September. This package includes plans to engage in joint exercises, embed trainers to assist in building Georgia's defense capacity and to establish a NATO training center. Although Appathurai said training center details are still under discussion, plans could be finalized by the next NATO ministerial meeting in February 2015.
Russia has long viewed Georgia's receiving membership in NATO to be a red line. At the moment, Georgia's moves still fall far short of actual membership; NATO would first have to grant a membership action plan, something that it has not been willing to do. Regardless, the recent developments are a concern for Moscow, particularly when placed the context of the Ukraine crisis.
Russia has responded by building its ties to the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence from Georgia after the 2008 war. Moscow has increased the scope and frequency of military exercises in both territories. It even launched large-scale drills in South Ossetia on Dec. 2 just as Georgian officials were meeting with NATO representatives in Brussels. Russia has also signed a new integration treaty with Abkhazia that expands Moscow's military and security influence in the territory. A similar treaty with South Ossetia is likely to follow in the near future.
These developments have led to increased friction between Moscow and Tbilisi. They have also contributed to Russia's broader standoff with the West — a standoff that shows no signs of abating. Fresh memories of open conflict between Russia and Georgia have given rise to concerns that this might once again come to pass. Russian military forces are stationed less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Tbilisi and, with both countries more active when it comes to training and exercises, the risk of escalation does seem quite real.
This perception is deceptive. A number of factors stand in the way of a return to full-scale war. Unlike in Ukraine, Russia already holds a strong position in Georgia's breakaway territories. Moving forces deeper into Georgia would take Russia out of the politically supportive environment of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and risk a bloody and costly war of attrition. A renewed military conflict would only galvanize Western and NATO support for Georgia, compounding the situation for Russia. Although troubling for Moscow, Tbilisi's cooperation with the security bloc has been relatively limited. Many NATO members are still opposed to incorporating the small and distant country. An aggressive Russian military action could potentially change that equation. And, at the moment, Russia does not need to intervene to prevent NATO integrations. Furthermore, Georgia's current government is internally divided, as seen in recent dismissals and resignations of high-ranking Cabinet members. This division could stop the country's NATO integration plans — something that Appathurai noted on his visit.
Still, Tbilisi has continued in its efforts to get closer to the security bloc. In the context of the Ukrainian crisis, NATO appears to be taking these ties more seriously. A number of factors still stand in the way of full integration. Regardless of the outcome, Georgia's ambitions will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping Russia's planning of its future relationships around the region.