Published February 28, 2014

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The stunning abdication of President Viktor Yanukovych has broken Ukraine’s bloody impasse while opening up a passel of questions about the future of the deeply divided country. Chief among them, naturally, is what will Russia do? Awaiting the answer are not only the citizens of Ukraine, whatever their political orientation, but those of other countries in Russia’s neighborhood, several of which have been shaken for months by unfolding events in Kiev and the tepid Western response. Georgians, for example, now have even more reason to fear stepped up Russian pressure after the Kremlin’s loss of face in Ukraine.

Fortunately, there is a straightforward way for the West — led by the US — to reassure Russia’s vulnerable neighbors. NATO, sparked by leadership from President Obama, must finally allow Georgia to advance toward alliance membership. Granting Georgia the Membership Action Plan (or ‘MAP’) that it has earned by meeting strict NATO requirements is the clearest way to impose a cost on Moscow for its bullying while demonstrating to Ukraine and other countries that the hard work of reform really does pay off.

Unfortunately, as in Ukraine, the U.S. has a cautious European partner. Europe’s angst over antagonizing Moscow has for six years caused NATO to fudge Tbilisi’s membership aspirations. In 2008, NATO promised Georgia that it would one day join the alliance, but has since denied Tbilisi the formal mechanism — the MAP– to achieve that goal. European skeptics, including Germany, fear that allowing Georgia into NATO will drag the alliance into a confrontation between Georgia and Russia over territories currently occupied by Russian forces.

In the past, Europeans had often laid the blame on Georgia’s former leadership for escalating the standoff with its powerful neighbor. However, parliamentary elections in 2012 and presidential elections of 2013 have seen a peaceful transfer of power to new Georgian leadership that has evinced restraint in its comments about Russia, and taken practical strides towards improving bilateral relationships. Even hawkish Russian politicians acknowledge the change in tone in Tbilisi.

But so far, Europe has not fully adjusted its view. And in the face of Western vacillation, Russia has only upped the pressure on Georgia, hardening the physical separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two breakaway regions that Moscow dominates. Russian forces have already erected barbed-wire fencing, making movement across administrative boundaries of ethnic Abkhaz, Ossetian and Georgian citizens impossible. Georgian leaders fear that this ominous step is only a precursor to more provocative Russian actions now that the Olympic Games in Sochi are over. Developments in Ukraine suggest Georgians are right to be worried.

In September, President Obama will join other Western leaders at NATO’s summit in Cardiff, Wales. Around Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the principled decision by NATO to grant Georgia MAP will be seen as a just reward for Georgia’s difficult reforms and also a sign of Western resolve. Putin, meanwhile, will be forced to rue the cost of his noxious meddling.

Ironically, NATO’s decision on Georgia should be easier than the one the EU has faced with Ukraine. Unlike the much larger, internally divided and decidedly unreformed Ukraine, tiny Georgia has no internal dilemmas over joining Western institutions. Last March, Parliament passed a unanimous resolution reconfirming Georgia’s NATO and EU aspirations. Georgia has made an outsized contribution to the NATO effort in Afghanistan. While Ukraine has stumbled badly on reform, Georgia has made steady progress — building functioning state institutions, streamlining regulations, developing critical infrastructure and cracking down on corruption. A visiting NATO delegation just confirmed Georgia’s progress on alliance benchmarks. Moreover, Georgians understand that entry into the alliance by no means confers an obligation on the part of NATO to recover the country’s occupied territories.

More widely, Georgia is a rare democracy in the strategically vital Caucasus region, which links Europe and the West to resource-rich Central Asia and beyond to China and India. A growing network of sea ports, air and land corridors put Georgia at the emerging nexus for Asian and European economies. As NATO and the US scale down their presence in Afghanistan, the West is going to need strong partners in this region of authoritarianism and potential Islamic radicalization. The urgent task for Washington is to overcome years of trans-Atlantic neglect of the entire Caucasus and Central Asia ‘arc of neglect.’

For its part, Tbilisi can help Washington persuade European skeptics of its NATO bona fides by offering separatist Abkhazians and South Ossetians the promise of sharing in visa-free travel to the EU while dealing forthrightly with the legacy of bitter internal conflicts.

The unfolding aftermath in Ukraine should move NATO members to grasp the value of standing up to Russian bullying and honoring commitments to countries like Georgia that carry out the hard task of reform. While Kiev enters a new period of dramatic uncertainty, new thinking on Tbilisi can offer hope to a deserving country and a nervous region.


Edward P. Joseph is a Senior Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Mamuka Tsereteli is Director of Research, Johns Hopkins Caucasus & Central Asia Institute.