Georgia and NATO: A Conflict of Interest

The Republic of Georgia has a very interesting history, and its relationship with NATO is no exception. Until 1991, it was the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic and an integral part of the Soviet Union. Today, it has turned against its former rulers and patrons in Moscow, embraced its former enemies in the West and sought to become a part of the alliance that was originally formed to oppose the Soviet Union. Whether Georgia is ready for the obligations of NATO membership and whether it is in the interest of the alliance to guarantee Georgian security remain open questions.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization promised in April 2008 that Georgia would become a member of the alliance at some indeterminate point in the future, but did not give it a Membership Action Plan, which would have been a more specific plan and timetable for NATO membership. A Membership Action Plan was opposed because of Georgia’s lack of democratic reform (Civil Georgia, 2008). However, Georgia has two deeper problems that could increase risk to NATO if it were allowed to join: first, its inability to control large portions of its territory and a high probability of conflict with Russia, as illustrated by the 2008 war.

LaPalombara explained in his book Politics within Nations that one of the crises of nation-building is penetration:

“Laws that are not enforced (assuming they are really intended to be); policies that are not implemented; geographic areas that remain outside the orbit of central national control –all represent inadequate penetration. The problem, and potential crisis of penetration, therefore, raises questions about the fundamental organizational capabilities of the central government” (1974, p. 50-52).

Penetration is a huge problem for Georgia. There are two separatist regions where Georgia has never been able to assert its control: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Historical context proves critical in understanding why.

Historical Context

The Ossetians have always been an ethnic group distinct from the Georgians. The Ossetians were a Christian people whose settlement and growth southward into Georgia was encouraged and directed by the Russian empire in the 18th century so they could serve as a buffer zone to protect Russians from highlander attacks in the Caucasus (King, 2010, p. 9 and 68). Thus the Ossetians have a pattern of looking to Russia as a patron and protector for nearly three hundred years. Abkhazia and Ossetia were both given a special autonomous status within the Soviet Union, united with Georgia by treaty but became quite accustomed to managing their own affairs (King, 2010, p. 188). The Ossetians themselves were divided by the Russian-Georgian border into North and South Ossetia; at the time this division didn’t seem that important, since they were all still part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Georgia shifted to the Western sphere of influence, tensions were bound to rise with the Russian-aligned Ossetians and Abkhazia.

The Abkhazian people were against Georgian independence from the Soviet Union because they thought they would lose power in the resulting republic. This led to a war in 1992 that ended in a cease fire monitored by Russian peacekeepers and failed to achieve any lasting resolution, ending in a de-facto and unrecognized independence (King, 2010, p. 215-216).

Tensions in South Ossetia spilled over into violence when South Ossetia demanded greater autonomy and Georgia responded by revoking the autonomous district status South Ossetia had previously had. This conflict lasted from 1990-1992 and ended in an unresolved cease fire in a similar manner as the Abkhazian conflict: de facto, unrecognized, Russian-backed independence (King, 2010, 216-217). The conflicts of Soviet succession left Georgia without actual control of a sizeable portion of its national territory.

As of August 2008, both Russia and Georgia were members of the NATO Partnership for Peace (NATO, 2005, p. 19). However, the ethnic tensions in the region made it a potentially explosive area. In 2008, Georgia moved troops to occupy South Ossetia and put an end to its de facto independence; Russia responded by driving the Georgians out of the contested area and invading Georgia itself (Friedman, 2008). The Russians responded so strongly for two reasons: one, to defend the Ossetian people who have looked to Russia for protection for centuries; and also to show the world that America cannot always protect its client states, especially when they are tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan (Friedman, 2008).

Georgia had been taking steps towards NATO membership for three years when the war occurred. Although Georgia initially won the support of public opinion and painted Russia as an outside aggressor, Georgia lost credibility when more of the facts of the conflict became public, especially the fact that Georgian troops had begun shelling civilians before Russia even crossed the border (King, 2010, p. 258-259). Dmitry Kadomtsev, a Russian-born American citizen was in St. Petersburg visiting his family during the 2008 war in Georgia, and his account helps to illustrate Russian public opinion. Kadomtsev explained in a personal phone interview that the Russian public strongly supported the war in Georgia for two reasons: first, since South Ossetia had such a long history of autonomy, it had never really been considered a part of Georgia anyway; second, Georgia’s shelling of civilians in cities inflamed the Russian public. Kadomtsev believed that the Georgian president was attempting to provoke a confrontation between NATO and Russia. Kadomtsev’s description of Russian opinion at the time is confirmed by King, who said that “the intervention in Georgia was wildly popular in Russia” (2010, p. 259).

Lessons from the 2008 War

The 2008 war in Georgia had important consequences. Following the war, Russia recognized both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics on August 26, 2008 (King, 2010, p. 256). The international community as a whole did not follow suit, but between Russia increasing its military presence in the secessionist areas of Georgia and its diplomatic recognition of the two areas, it became “clear that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would never return to full Georgian control” (King, 2010, p. 257).

NATO’s response to the war in Georgia was quite timid. During the conflict itself, their support for Georgia never was more than a few press conferences, calling the Russian intervention disproportionate “which is incompatible with Russia’s peacekeeping role in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia” (NATO, 2010). NATO also issued a statement opposing Moscow’s diplomatic recognition of the two secessionist areas, affirming support for Georgian territorial integrity and demanded that Russia reverse its decision (NATO, 2010). Such hopes and demands belong in a fantasy world.

Georgia will never regain control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia because of one simple geopolitical reality: the Caucasus is a crucial and vital national security interest for Russia, but only a peripheral one for the United States and its allies. The Caucasus Mountains provide an area that is easy for the Russians to defend from an invasion from Turkey or Iran. If Russia lost these mountains, it would be much more difficult to defend the southern border, which explains Russia’s stubborn hold on Chechnya and tensions with Georgia (Friedman, 2009, p. 107). Russia has demonstrated that it is far more willing to pay the price in blood for control of the Caucasus than the United States, and their pattern of Caucasus intervention goes back three hundred years. That propensity is not likely to change; in today’s globalized world it is even more important for Russia to maintain a hold on the Caucasus, given their difficulties with Muslim terrorists there, so that they can better control the movement of people and weaponry in that region.

Russian Opposition to NATO Expansion

Today’s resurging Russia has consistently fought NATO expansion all along its borders; continuing expansion into Georgia will only increase tensions. NATO has moved right up to the Russian border in the Baltic States and is increasing its reach into Eastern Europe. NATO troops are now only seventy miles from St. Petersburg; during the Cold War, they were more than a thousand miles away (Friedman, 2009, p. 103). Having NATO along their southern border as well would make them feel even more surrounded and increase the likelihood of war.

NATO’s broken promises give Russia every reason not to trust that this geographic encirclement is really as harmless as NATO claims it to be. Dr. Kelly Pease pointed out that “the expansion of NATO raises serious questions regarding the alliance’s purposes, goals, and credibility” (2008, p. 147). In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised Gorbachev, “if you remove your troops and allow unification of Germany in NATO, NATO will not expand one inch to the east” (Bradley, 2009). But NATO now includes much of Eastern Europe. President Putin referenced this incident when he said “A powerful military bloc appearing near our borders will be perceived in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country. Statements claiming that this process is not directed against Russia are not satisfactory to us. National security is not built on promises, especially since we have had similar promises prior to the previous waves of the bloc’s expansion” (Russia Today, 2008).

NATO expansion is already losing momentum, as Russia’s neighbors begin to see the costs of defying Moscow. The Ukraine had been promised eventual membership in NATO at the 2008 Bucharest Summit (at the same meeting a similar promise was made to Georgia). But as recently as April 2010, the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych dissolved his government’s commission tasked with preparing for NATO membership and is trying to bolster relations with Russia (Nicola, 2010).

Georgia’s internal territorial disputes, its recent attacks on civilians in the 2008 war, and the dangers of it sparking a wider conflict with Russia make it clear that NATO has more to lose by allowing Georgia to join the alliance than it could ever hope to gain, especially since there is already a framework for Georgia to participate in NATO actions on a case by case basis through the Partnership for Peace, without having to make treaty guarantees that could force NATO into war with Russia over a part of the world that is peripheral to Western interests but absolutely crucial to the Russians.


Bradley, B. (2009). A diplomatic mystery. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from

Civil Georgia. (2008). Eventual membership agreed, action plan delayed. Politics. Retrieved from

Friedman, G. (2008). The Russo-Georgian War and the balance of power. Strategic Forecasting. Retrieved from

Friedman, G. (2009). The Next 100 Years. New York: Anchor Books.

King, C. (2010). The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. New York: Oxford University Press.

Joseph LaPalombara, Politics Within Nations, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1974. pp. 46-57. Excerpt retrieved from APUS online classroom.

Nicola, S. (2010). Ukraine shelves NATO membership plan. Retrieved from

North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (2005). Security through partnership. Brussels, Belgium: NATO Public Diplomacy Division.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (2010). NATO’s relations with Georgia. Retrieved from

Pease, K. S. (2008). International Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Russia Today. (2008). NATO expansion a ‘direct threat to Russia.’ Retrieved from

Be the first to comment on "Georgia and NATO: A Conflict of Interest"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.