O’Hanlon Dishes out Bitter Pills for Georgia: The US Cannot Protect the Whole World
25 April, 2017
O’Hanlon Dishes out Bitter Pills for Georgia: The US Cannot Protect the Whole World
When Wall Street Journal writes something about Georgia, Georgian people (those who know what WSJ is) read it. When Wall Street Journal publishes an article about Georgia’s (and Ukraine’s) permanent neutrality status as a medicament for its security ailments, people read
with great interest.

Panorama Talk Show and GEORGIA TODAY contacted Michael O’Hanlon, a US scholar at the Brookings Institute who did just that: in his article, he opines that NATO membership is unrealistic for Georgia and Ukraine and that these countries would be better off declaring neutrality and having “security assurances” from the US and Russia.

Armed with righteous fury and two pinches of skepticism, we start off by asking him in what reality Georgia’s neutrality would be sustainable, seeing as to maintain it, the country should be able to defend it (militarily) and afford it (economically).

He suggests we compare his scenario with what we have now. And what we have is not much, he thinks, as the West’s promise to grant Georgia the NATO Membership Action Plan, made in Bucharest in 2008, remains unfulfilled, with no timeline provided to do so.

“And as we know, that very summer was when Russian forces invaded Georgia. And we’ve seen subsequently that Russia seized Crimea and then contributed to separatist fighting in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine was also promised eventual NATO membership, with no specificity and no Membership Action Plan. Therefore, I think the current strategy is not working. The current strategy is leaving Georgia, Ukraine and other countries of Eastern Europe vulnerable,” O’Hanlon says.

He is not alone in his conclusion, of course. There are many who would agree. And many who would claim that those who don’t are just unable to swallow a certain bitter pill known as hard truth. But what is O’Hanlon’s alternative and how viable is it?

“I’ve concluded that we would be better off trying to negotiate with Russia an understanding that countries like Georgia and Ukraine will have every opportunity to join any other association they wish, economically or politically, but NATO expansion will no longer continue and will not include them. I hope that would be a way to actually persuade Russia...”

Basically, we say, you are calling for the West to create so-called buffer zones. The very thing we (and Ukrainians) don’t want to be. What follows is a wording battle.

“Well, I don’t propose they be called a ‘buffer zone’ for Russia. These are your words, not mine. I propose neutrality. Buffer zone implies that Georgia and Ukraine have less sovereign right to their own decisions and that they are somehow pawns in a greater strategic game between great countries. I don’t want to use this kind of language. I fully respect the sovereignty and independence and all the rights that Georgia and Ukraine have. I insist that any future security architecture would preserve those rights. The issue is: should they be in NATO or should they be neutral? I think that neutrality would serve them better and serve the United States better, as well.”

Unconvinced, we ask how that might be. In his article, which will soon be followed by an entire book on the matter, he says that it will have the form of an agreement which Russia has to follow and adhere to. The same Russia that is notorious for violating agreements. On this, at least, we seem to be on the same page. He admits that it “is a very serious concern” and says he has leverages in mind that would dissuade (hopefully) Russia from disrespecting the deal.

“We will only lift sanctions on Russia if they agree to remove military forces and resolve the so-called frozen conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia. And if Russia wants to make sure the two don't join the Alliance in the future, it has to respect the deal and allow verification of that deal.”

So, economic sanctions and the threat of future NATO expansion. Hard as that might be to imagine, if Russia still goes and violates it, what happens next? Perhaps the United States would be ready to step in and fight for Georgia?

He says that this is the exact thing that he does not want the US to do.

“I’m proposing that we NOT expand our military alliance. There is a small number of American forces training with the Georgians. That’s fine. And obviously, many Americans are extremely grateful to Georgia for its contributions in international security operations like in Afghanistan. But,” he says, “you’ll have to work it out with Russia. The US cannot protect the whole world – especially a small country right next to Russia. We don’t have the capability to do that.”

So, the scenario goes like this: this tiny country is left alone to negotiate an incredibly complex deal with a mammoth of a neighbor, and if said neighbor reconsiders the terms of the deal, the tiny country stays there alone and undefended. So much for security guarantees, we say. He says there isn’t one. At least for us. A bucketload of bitter pills, this one.

“At one level, there is no guarantee, and that’s the simple fact of the matter,” he tells us. “Georgia is in a place where it is too small and too far away for any completely dependable guarantee to be issued by anybody. To date, as you know, Georgia has not received any meaningful security guarantees from anyone. I don’t know how to change that. The word “guarantee” in English is a very strong word, as you know.”

To his defense, he says Russia and Georgia have to agree on an agreement or it won’t work. His proposal also includes removing Russian military forces from Georgian territories, a prospect that would be very popular with Georgian people, perhaps even if it came at the price of all and every Euro-Atlantic aspiration. Would Moscow remove its bases from Abkhazia and South Ossetia too, though? He says it also has to be agreed chiefly between Georgia and Russia, and the same goes for Ukraine, but the West would also “participate in the wider framework of these negotiations and be solemnly on the side of the smaller countries as they have these negotiations with Russia.”

We ask what his motivation was for talking about neutral Georgia and neutral Ukraine in his WSJ article.

He handles the question well. And dishes out another portion of those pills as a farewell monologue.

“Well, I’m not on the Russian payroll. I would suggest that my Georgian friends take stock of where they are today. Right now, they have a very ambiguous promise of future NATO membership, which will probably never happen as long as they still have disputes with Russia over the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So, if I were a Georgian, I would simply encourage you to think clearly about your current options. I do not think you have a good option now with NATO membership, nor do I think you’re going to get one. Moreover, as an American, I have the right to ask whether I want to see my children, my neighbors, my friends, in a military commitment to defend people halfway around the world. It is not smart; it’s not realistic. And I don’t feel that I should be pledging my fellow Americans and their potential lives to defend a country that is not currently in NATO and probably cannot be defended in any plausible way because it’s so far away.”

Spoken like a chess grand master, and there he was saying he wouldn’t compare Georgia and Ukraine to pawns. But all this Realpolitik aside – If this is how things are, many would think us fools. Heartbroken fools, at that.

“We’ve been toiling for a fair chance of joining the Euro-Atlantic alliance for years now,” we tell him. “And don’t forget Afghanistan, where we pledged the lives of our friends and fellow Georgians to defend the common values Georgia and the US seem to believe in”. And it’s all in vain, if we follow O’Hanlon’s logic. We don’t, but we are disappointed nonetheless, as will be the many who read it. We ask him about that as our final question.

“Yes, I think it could be disappointing for a while; I expect that some of my readers in Georgia would be angry. I understand that. There should be a debate; I’m glad to hear there’s a debate. I think it will take a while for this kind of idea to be fully digested,” he says.

Vazha Tavberidze
Source: Georgia Today
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