The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, has been tasked with countering Russian aggression for as long as there’s been a Russia. First established in 1949, NATO sought to ensure peace and stability throughout Europe with an eye on the Soviet bear that was awakened during World War II, and while NATO’s purview has expanded to include counter-terrorism and humanitarian operations throughout the intervening decades, their first priority has always been serving as a check for the “Red menace” on Europe’s eastern flank.
Now, the small nation of Georgia, nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, is priming itself for becoming a full-fledged member of the NATO alliance, and that revelation has many worried that NATO’s newest member state may result in more than just adding a chair at the table during NATO summits — some worry that Georgia could provide the spark that leads to a full-fledged war with Russia. In fact, according to Russia’s own Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, Georgia’s accession into NATO may be enough to “trigger a terrible conflict.”
These concerns are primarily born out of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which like Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014, saw Russia “supporting” separatist movements that ultimately led to Russia winning the two contested territories in what has been held as the first European war of the 21st Century. In the United States, this conflict, like that in Ukraine some six years later, didn’t garner a great deal of media attention — particularly because kinetic operations lasted only five days.
Tensions, however, remain high between Russia and Georgia, who like Ukraine, now finds itself in Russia’s crosshairs as a former member of the Soviet bloc. Russian president Vladimir Putin has made little effort to hide his aspirations of returning Russia to the heyday of Soviet power, which often includes retaking portions of the old empire that serve important tactical value — like his decision to capture Crimea to retain power over the naval base in Sevastopol that serves as Russia’s staging ground for Black Sea operations.
Now, with Georgia hoping to join the alliance officially (some ten years after NATO agreed to one day grant both Georgia and Ukraine entry), Russian officials have attempted to characterize the change as a move toward conflict, despite the conflict originating in the Russian capture of territories belonging to a foreign government.
“Today, you are standing on the territory of a country, 20 percent of which is absolutely illegally occupied by our neighbor Russia.” Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili announced at the beginning of the recent Noble Partner military exercises.
Of course, Russia’s threats of burgeoning war aren’t entirely worthy of concern. Russia has a long-standing tradition of offering up vague threats of future conflict as a way to paint opponent nations as the aggressors, nor turning their eye toward a narrative that includes Georgia hoping to force NATO into what Russia sees as an almost internal conflict between former Soviet territories. In reality, of course, Georgia is hoping to survive the ire of its Russian cousin, and NATO support is likely enough to prevent Russia’s further advance into their territory. In short, Georgia’s options may well be continued conflict or teaming up with a larger force that would push Russia to back off on their occupation. Russia, it’s important to note, lacks the economic power it would need to sustain a long-term conflict with NATO.
Would Georgia joining NATO usher in World War III? Likely not, but is it in Russia’s best interest to suggest that it might? Absolutely.
Featured image: U.S. and Georgian soldiers position themselves in the rear airguard hatch of Stryker during their movement from Poti, Georgia to Vaziani Training Area in Georgia for exercise Noble Partner. Noble Partner 17 is a European Rotational Force exercise of Georgia’s light infantry company contribution to the NATO Response Force. The exercise provides participating nations with the opportunity to train in a multinational environment while enhancing cooperation and interoperability during realistic and challenging training events | U.S. Army photo by Capt. John W. Strickland