Georgia Pushes for Fast Path to NATO on Russian Threat

Georgia is pushing for fast-track NATO membership in the fall as protection from Russia, whose involvement in Ukraine’s political crisis has sparked the worst standoff with the U.S. and Europe since the Cold War.

“It’s time for Georgia to receive an unequivocal and well-deserved signal that its integration to NATO is progressing,” State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Alex Petriashvili said yesterday in a phone interview from the capital, Tbilisi. “As long as there’s uncertainty and ambivalence about NATO’s integration prospects, Georgia will be at risk of recurrent provocations on Russia’s part.”

Russia, which fought a five-day war with Georgia in 2008, annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula last month after Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled. The U.S. and the European Union accuse the government in Moscow of fomenting separatist unrest in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and massing troops for a possible invasion. Russia has denied it plans to invade.

President Vladimir Putin said this month that he decided to absorb Crimea in part because of the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accusing the U.S.-led military alliance of violating a commitment not to expand toward Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

‘Cancerous Tumor’

“NATO is spreading like a cancerous tumor,” Putin said in his annual call-in show. “In the past 25 years, this bloc has literally swallowed our Warsaw Treaty allies, then some parts of the Soviet Union, and the Baltic states. It has opened its jaws to swallow Georgia and now Ukraine as well.”

Between 1999 and 2009, NATO welcomed 12 eastern European countries -- including the remaining members of the Warsaw Pact and the three Baltic republics.

Georgia is seeking a provisional status called the “membership action plan” at a September summit in the U.K., according to Petriashvili. Last August, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was then prime minister, said his country aimed to join NATO and the EU within four years. He was replaced by ally Irakli Garibashvili in November.

NATO said Georgia must do more work to fully integrate into the Euro-Atlantic Community and the alliance is working with the country of 4.5 million to achieve this. “Every nation has the right to decide its security policy and its alliance affiliation itself,” NATO said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Open-Door Policy’

NATO should add new members to show Russia can’t intimidate it and may start the membership process for one in September, as long as the nation is ready, the alliance’s Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia, said April 3.

The Obama administration continues to support Georgia’s goal to join NATO, said Shannon Quinn, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the 28-member organization. “Regarding Georgia’s aspirations to get MAP status, NATO allies will consider this in the run-up to the NATO summit in September, in keeping with the Alliance’s open-door policy,” he said by e-mail.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said April 24 during a joint visit to Tbilisi with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, that France together with Germany support close ties between NATO and Georgia. How exactly they develop is a matter for discussion, he said.

Germany supports deepening the partnership between Georgia and NATO, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer told reporters April 25.

NATO Membership

Still, the question of NATO membership for Georgia isn’t currently on the agenda of the next summit, said a German government official, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on Georgia’s plans.

The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia broke out months after the U.S. pushed unsuccessfully for Georgian and Ukrainian pre-membership of NATO, with opposition from Germany and France blocking the path. Putin later threatened to hang Georgia’s U.S.-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili “by the balls.”

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said April 3 that Russian aggression is pushing Ukraine toward affiliation with NATO. He said he doesn’t “rule out” joining the alliance if Russia continues to act in the same way.

Georgia also faces the risk that Putin may annex two breakaway territories backed by Russia, Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said by phone.

Becoming Reality

“If Russia takes military action in southeast Ukraine, Georgian NATO membership would become a reality,” she said.

Russia may also seek to stir separatism in Georgia’s ethnic Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, where residents have been applying for Russian citizenship, according to Svante Cornell, research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program in Stockholm. The region is on the route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which is 30 percent owned by BP Plc and carries Azeri crude through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

“Jakhaveti could go all the way to what’s going on in eastern Ukraine today,” Cornell said by phone. “If Georgia abandons its NATO plans, it won’t help. If the Georgian government shows such weakness, the Russians will immediately exploit it.”

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