Can Georgia Survive a New Era of U.S.-Russia Relations?

Can Georgia Survive a New Era of U.S.-Russia Relations?

Why you should care

Because a Russian rapprochement is downright scary to some of us.

Giorgi Khatiashvili is a Georgian activist and scholar of international relations.

World leaders don’t know quite what to make of President Donald Trump. The only certainty? That U.S. foreign policy is bound to be unpredictable for the foreseeable future. In Georgia, we understand that Trump brings the promise of a new beginning, but we are concerned that Trump’s declared intention of getting along with Russia will translate into ignoring Georgia or making it a prisoner of pro-Moscow policies. The question on everyone’s mind: What price is Trump’s administration willing to pay for good relations with Russia?

The new U.S. president thinks of himself as a deal-maker and has even talked of lifting sanctions if he gets Russian cooperation. But all deals involve compromise. In Georgia, many of us fear that President Trump will follow Henry Kissinger’s advice and, in order to usher in a Russian rapprochement, will “recognize Russia’s dominance in the former Soviet states of Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan.”

Georgia and Ukraine are rightfully concerned about having to deal with the fallout of any new Russian-American détente.

Georgians have reason to be afraid. Apart from the country being invaded by Russia in 2008, the Kremlin regularly conducts information warfare against Georgia, aiming to foment anti-Western sentiments and upset Georgia’s European aspirations while spreading fear and hatred. A majority of Georgians still want to join NATO, but recent polls show that those numbers have slipped by 7 percent in the past year. As countries with no NATO security guarantees that face Russian aggression and occupation every day, Georgia and Ukraine are rightfully concerned about having to deal with the fallout of any new Russian-American détente. We also fear it will embolden Russia to behave even more aggressively, working to further undermine the political stability of Georgia. Fading Western support, meanwhile, will only encourage our domestic forces to promote closer relations with Russia and advocate the abandonment of Euro-Atlantic integration.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In previous statements, Trump has also said that progress might not be achieved with Russia, and that he would be tougher on Russia than Hillary Clinton. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said during his Senate confirmation hearing that in an “increasing number of areas … we will have to confront Russia.” We hope Russian infringement upon Georgian sovereignty will be one of those areas. Bilateral defense cooperation and enhancing Georgian defense capabilities remain crucial for Georgian security. Last year, for example, Tbilisi hosted joint U.S.-Georgian military exercises.

Irakli Sirbiladze, a Georgian scholar of international politics, points out that U.S.-Georgian relations have endured many different administrations, preserving a robust continuity that reflects “U.S. support for the democracy-building process in Georgia” as well as an unwavering endorsement of Georgia’s unshakable aspiration for European integration. He believes this relationship could be maintained and strengthened under Trump if “Georgia demonstrates its comparative advantages” to the new administration, like being the only stable democracy in the region and a trusted ally in the war on terror. It’s crucial that Georgian politicians “explain to the new administration that the support Georgia receives from the U.S. is not in vain,” he explains, but instead helps the U.S. achieve its wider national security goals.

More broadly, there is some concern that Trump will accelerate President Obama’s ill-advised policy of disengagement and passivity in world affairs. The 45th U.S. president has not hidden his dissatisfaction with the current state of international relations and America’s role in it. In his inaugural speech, Trump complained that for too long America “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military” and “defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.” Few will ever forget his vow to always put America first.

Political historian Grigol Gegelia fears that an “absence of productive U.S. engagement” on the world stage could put millions of lives at risk. He recalls the tragic fate of the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918-1921 and how it, “the most progressive republic of the time in the entire world, became a victim of Bolshevik malaise” because of a lack of interest by global powers in seeing a small and functioning democracy succeed.

The world, and especially Georgians, cannot afford a new wave of isolationism. It’s not just the new democracies of Eastern Europe at risk, says Gegelia, but “the very idea of a free democracy based on the ideals of the French revolution and the progressive spirit of the centuries that followed.”

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