Georgia is not the first state that comes to mind when thinking about the defense priorities of the United States and NATO. However, the small Caucasian state now sits at the confluence of both the geopolitical aggression of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the fight against the Islamic State. Given this confluence of geopolitical interests, Georgia’s defense institutions may benefit from their increased relevance in the coming months.
Regional Positioning and Posturing
The Caucasus is the overlooked periphery of Islamic extremism. The Chechen insurgency – long under the command of Caucasus Emirate – is likely shifting its alliances to the Islamic State. The militant group has recently stated its intention to “liberate” the Caucasus. Furthermore, the North Caucasus is far from pacified, and if its insurgency gets any renewed leadership and fighting skill from the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Chechens who have been fighting with the Islamic State in Syria – one of whom has become one of the group’s top battlefield commanders – the consequences could be drastic for both Georgian and Russian security. As a result, Tbilisi sits in a very advantageous position and has the potential to become a bulwark on the Northern flank of the Islamic State, and the Southern flank of Putin’s Russia.
It therefore comes as no surprise that in the previous months, Georgia has garnered more attention from NATO members, especially the United States. Georgia was named in the Ukraine Freedom Support Act as a “major non-NATO ally,” along with Moldova and Ukraine. While this does not mean that the United States and NATO allies will come to the aid of Georgia in the event of another Russian invasion, this does open up new doors to material and logistical support. On September 23rd, Georgia was the latest country to join the anti-ISIS coalition, offering to host a specialized training center for the Syrian rebels. While the camp never came to fruition, the sentiment alone is indicative of the enhanced role the Georgia seeks to play in the current security calculus of the United States and NATO – especially if such roles accompany military training and hardware from the alliance.
The United States has taken notice of Georgia increased relevancy. Two senior US defense officials visited Georgia in late 2014 to discuss the future of defense cooperation between the two states. This is the most attention that the US Department of Defense has given the country since the Bush administration. Since that time, Georgia has pressed hard for a larger level of material support from the US military, and now they just may get what they want. During a September 22nd meeting with the Georgian defense minister, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said that the purpose of his visit was to explore ways of “boosting Georgia’s defensive capabilities.” However, the visit of Secretary of Defense Hagel was extremely consequential for Tbilisi. The September visit was a unique opportunity for the Secretary to discuss both the Islamic state and Putin aggression, and mister Hagel was quick to move on a show of material support, promising to facilitate Georgia’s purchase of Blackhawk helicopters.
While Georgia’s position may look precarious, it has the potential to use these regional security concerns among the US and Eastern European allies to its advantage. While Putin’s attention is split over Ukraine, NATO’s positioning of a rapid response force in the Baltics and Poland, as well as the country’s poor economic situation, Georgia has the opportunity to quietly broker a wealth of agreements over hardware and increased capabilities at the expense of the United States and NATO allies. In the coming months, Georgia could see greater benefits to its defense sector than at any other time in its twenty-five years of independence.