Will the US resume weapons sales to Georgia?

The US congress recently passed a bill that would mandate a resumption of arms sales to the South Caucasus state.

Russian tank
After the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, US arms sales to Georgia ceased [EPA]

Washington, DC – The US Congress has mandated that the US begin to sell weapons again to Georgia, re-establishing full military ties for the first time since the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. This will likely throw a wrench into the delicate “reset” between Washington and Moscow.

Deep inside the massive military authorisation bill passed on December 15, Section 1242 calls on the Secretaries of Defence and State to develop a plan within 90 days “for the normalisation of United States defence cooperation with the Republic of Georgia, including the sale of defensive arms”. It encourages NATO member and candidate countries “to restore and enhance their sales of defensive articles and services to the Republic of Georgia as part of a broader NATO effort to deepen its defense relationship and cooperation with the Republic of Georgia”.

Over the last decade, Georgia has become one of the US’ most loyal allies. With the rise to power of President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004, the US saw an opportunity to carve a foothold in the South Caucasus, traditionally Russia’s sphere of influence, using Georgia’s friendly, reform-oriented and, it seemed at the time, democratic government.

[Georgia is] probably the largest per capita troop contributor to the US and NATO wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Georgia, meanwhile, sought to bring to an end the two-century era of domination by Moscow by allying with Russia’s superpower rival. The Georgian capital, Tbilisi, now has a highway named after George W Bush (who visited in 2005 and called the country a “beacon of liberty”) and a statue of Ronald Reagan.

US-Georgia ties have long had a strong military component. US troops have trained thousands of their Georgian counterparts, and Georgia has returned the favour by being probably the largest per capita troop contributor to the US and NATO wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time of its war with Russia, Georgia had 2,000 troops in the Middle East, roughly a quarter of its entire military. It currently has more than 900 troops in Afghanistan, and ten of its soldiers have been killed in action there.

Weapons sales, though, have never been a significant part of its relationship with the US. Georgia, as an ex-Soviet republic, still relies heavily on Russian military technology, though it is now more likely to get its equipment from sympathetic fellow former satellites like Poland, Ukraine or Bulgaria. And given its poverty, Georgia can’t afford much US equipment, anyway.

But after the 2008 war with Russia, US equipment sales ceased. The Georgian government and its American supporters argue that the State Department has quietly implemented a de facto “embargo” against the sale of weapons to Georgia, though those claims have never been substantiated. (Another provision of the new law calls on the Department of Defence to catalogue all the requests Tbilisi has made for arms sales over the past two years, and the action taken on those requests and the reason taken for those actions, in an apparent attempt to bring this alleged embargo into the open.)

Yet, while the US has continued other forms of military co-operation with Georgia such as training, the fact that Washington would no longer consider weapons sales has rankled Georgia. “[L]eaving Georgia defenceless doesn’t help the situation,” Saakashvili has said. “Georgia cannot attack Russia, while a defenceless Georgia is a big temptation for Russia to change our government through military means… As part of ongoing security cooperation, we hope that the US will help us with defence-weapons capabilities.”

Saakashvili has also claimed that only the US could sell Georgia the weapons it needs to protect itself: “What Georgia really needs is something that it cannot get from anywhere else and that’s anti-air and anti-tank [weapons] and that’s completely obvious… That’s where should be the next stage of the co-operation”. Accordingly, Georgia’s substantial lobbying apparatus in Washington has made restoring weapons sales its top priority, an effort which appears to have finally borne fruit with this new law.

‘Reset’ a success – so far

The question of arms sales has also, however, become a touchstone for the US’s relationship with Russia. The Obama administration has tried to improve relations with Russia, via the so-called “reset”, and for the most part it’s been a success. Russia has agreed, most notably, to allow US military cargo to pass through its territory en route to Afghanistan, on what the Pentagon calls the Northern Distribution Network. But Russian officials have made it clear that selling arms to Georgia is a red line.

If the US starts those sales again, “that will spoil our relations”, said Yevgeny Buzhinsky, a retired general who until last year headed the Russian Ministry of Defence’s International Co-operation Directorate. “Georgia is a very special case, and if I were a US policymaker I would keep a very low profile for the time being with Georgia… If they want to antagonise Russia, stop talking about transit; it will again be the ‘Cold Peace’.”

This is an especially sensitive time for US-Russian ties. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the US (without evidence) of fomenting protests against apparently fraudulent parliamentary elections earlier this month. Russia has also lately turned up the temperature on the dispute over a US missile defence plan for Europe, and Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, reportedly threatened to cut off the Northern Distribution Network if the US went ahead with its plans.

[Russia] knows better than to believe rhetoric from Washington about Georgia’s democracy, understanding that to the US, Georgia’s real utility is its willingness to be used as a tool against Russia.

And the question of NATO membership for Georgia, written off after the 2008 war, seems to be back on the table. At a NATO foreign ministers meeting this month, members for the first time called Georgia an “aspirant” country. It’s not clear if that is anything more than a rhetorical shift, but it prompted an angry response from Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. NATO, he said, “may unwittingly push Georgia’s current regime toward a repetition of its August 2008 adventure”. That war began just after a NATO summit in which the alliance promised membership to Georgia. “Given the mentality of Mikheil Saakashvili, I have no doubt that this played an important role in his taking the mad and reckless decision,” Lavrov said.

To many in Washington that sounds like bullying, and interfering with Georgia’s sovereign right to make alliances with whomever it chooses. But Russians have longer memories than Americans, and recall that in the 1990s, when Russia was struggling through a painful transition from communism and a sharp drop in its geopolitical heft, the US took advantage. It encouraged the NATO membership of Russia’s former satellites without ever considering Russia itself for membership, which looked to Moscow like the Cold War hadn’t ended, but had just shifted the front line to Russia’s disadvantage. The US also backed oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea through Georgia to Europe whose sole purpose was to bypass already existing Russian pipelines.

This worked as long as Russia was weak and unable to resist. But now, with a decade of resource wealth and a consolidated power structure, Russia is able to fight back. And it knows better than to believe rhetoric from Washington about Georgia’s democracy, understanding that to the US, Georgia’s real utility is its willingness to be used as a tool against Russia.

Russia still has an interest in keeping good relations with the US, and threats to trash the reset should be taken with a grain of salt. Cutting off the military transit to Afghanistan, for example, could hurt Russia as much as it does the US: The Kremlin worries that an unfettered Taliban could spread northward towards its borders, and that US failure in Afghanistan could mean a return to the 1980s, when Russians were the ones dying to stanch Islamist extremism in Central Asia. It’s still not clear if Moscow will be willing to carry out these threats. But with this new legislation, we may be about to find out.

Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to EurasiaNet, US News and World Report and Slate.

Follow him on Twitter: @joshuakucera

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.