On May 1, A. Wess Mitchell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, visited the Georgian village of Odzisi (Dusheti District), located on the occupation line between Georgia and its occupied Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia) (Accent.com, May 1). After Moscow took de facto control of the region following the August 2008 war, Russian “border guards,” together with the South Ossetian KGB (the special service of this breakaway republic still carries the old Soviet name), installed fencing and barbed wire along what heretofore had been an open administrative border (Agenda.ge, April 22, 2015). At the occupation line, Assistant Secretary Mitchell expressed US support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. “Ten years ago, there was a war here; and I am here today to remind the Russian government that the world has not forgotten about those events. We do not recognize this boundary line as an international border,” he stressed (Accent.com, May 1).
The visiting Assistant Secretary of State additionally called on Moscow to honor the terms of the 2008 ceasefire agreement and withdraw its troops from Georgian territories. “The United States is deeply committed to the security of Georgia as a partner,” the US diplomat said. This was an important message for the Georgian government to receive from a high-ranking US official, but it was not the only notable statement the Assistant Secretary made during his visit. Speaking the following day, at the NATO-Georgia Public Diplomacy Forum in Tbilisi, Mitchell reconfirmed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members’ pledge, originally voiced at the Alliance’s 2008 Bucharest Summit, to one day welcome Georgia into the military bloc, when this country is ready for accession (UAWire, May 2).
During a meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Georgi Kvirikashvili, Wess Mitchell, on behalf of the US administration, thanked Georgia for its role in “strengthening the security of the region, staying on the path to NATO and the EU [European Union].” Mitchell also underscored Georgia’s significant contribution to the US-led international missions in Afghanistan and, earlier, in Iraq. In thanking the US Assistant Secretary of State for his visit, Prime Minister Kvirikashvili reiterated Georgia’s continued commitment to pursue NATO membership and European integration with the United States’ support (Gov.ge, May 1).
One month earlier, on April 5, within the framework of his official visit to Washington, DC, Georgia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikheil Janelidze met with Assistant Secretary Mitchell. According to Janelidze, during the meeting the two discussed how to further deepen bilateral cooperation in the fields of defense and security (Georgia Today, April 5).
The past months’ exchanges are an important milestone after a roughly year-long pause in Georgian-US relations since Vice President Michael Pence’s high-profile visit to Tbilisi in summer 2017. Pence’s trip coincided with an unprecedentedly large US Army–led joint military exercise on Georgian territory—Noble Partner 2017. While in Tbilisi, he notably declared that the US considers the security of Georgia no less important than the security of the Baltic republics, which are already members of the North Atlantic Alliance (Kommersant, August 2, 2017).
The Pence visit, in particular, signaled the Donald Trump administration’s apparent willingness to adhere to past US policy of closely supporting Georgia. After recognizing the independence of this former Soviet republic, on December 25, 1991, the United States provided a combined $4 billion in aid to Georgia between 1992 and 2002, and implemented a “train and equip” program for the Georgian army (Radiotavisupleba.ge, September 4, 2002). In turn, Georgia then contributed the third-largest military contingent to postwar operations in Iraq and the largest non-NATO military force in Afghanistan (RFE/RL, September 10, 2007). After the Russian aggression in 2008, Georgia received an additional $4 billion in urgent aid from the US and its allies as a result of an international donor conference, convened by Washington (State.gov, December 18, 2010).
On January 9, 2009, Tbilisi and Washington signed a Charter on Strategic Partnership, described by Georgian officials as “historic” (Civil Georgia, January 9, 2009). “The document outlines areas of cooperation and reiterates US support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and for Georgia’s NATO membership. This Charter underscores the principles and outlines the way to advance our relationship, first of all, in defense and security,” former Georgian ambassador to the United States, Batu Kutelia, recently told this author (Author’s interview, April 27). However, at the time of its signing, then–US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza pointedly told Imedi TV that the Charter in itself was not a security guarantee. “Security guarantees will come along with NATO membership,” Bryza said in remarks made in Russian (Civil Georgia, January 9, 2009).
Nevertheless, according to doctor of military sciences Vakhtang Maisaia, the 2009 agreement “created the foundation for the development of cooperation in the military sphere.” And Russian military activities in Ukraine, since 2014, have made the Charter even more relevant today to Georgia as well as the US. “So, the Pentagon is already preparing nine Georgian battalions and transferred anti-tank Javelin missiles to our country,” the military expert said (Author’s interview, May 6).
Last year, Tbilisi and Washington marked 25 years of bilateral relations. And as Tornike Sharashenidze, a professor at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, remarked, the two sides are now discussing a free trade agreement. “Perhaps, the Georgian government also hopes for visa-liberalization with the US, but this is a matter for the future,” Sharashenidze said. An even more far-reaching possibility is for the US to establish military bases on the unoccupied territory of Georgia. “But Washington will not place its military so close to Russian forces,” the expert noted. This might change, however, “if Russia crosses the ‘red line’ and tries to seize [substantial] additional Georgian land adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including the Tbilisi–Gori–Poti Highway. For now, the Americans are confident the free part of Georgia is not under direct threat,” Professor Sharashenidze asserted (Author’s interview, May 6).
According to David Avalishvili, of the independent analytical news agency GHN, “Georgia’s chances of becoming the US’s main ally in the region have increased as a result of the unpredictable behavior of neighboring Turkey,” whose leadership has been ramping up anti-American rhetoric. Consequently, “there is a likelihood of strategic changes to American-Turkish cooperation. Some Turkish leaders have even advocated for the withdrawal of American troops from the country,” Avalishvili recalled (Author’s interview, May 6). Nonetheless, it remains to be seen just how far Washington is willing to go to make up for the loss of Ankara by further developing its relations with Tbilisi.