Svante Cornell. Photo: screengrab from youtube, lecture at ADA University
Svante Cornell is the director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a research center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) and the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ICDP). Zviad Adzinbaia spoke with him on behalf of Civil.Ge about prospects of advancing U.S.-Georgia bilateral security cooperation.
How do you see prospects of enhancing U.S.-Georgia security cooperation in the medium and long-term?
I think, institutionally there is enough framework for the process to work, irrespective of political leadership in both countries. The key issue for Georgia is to ensure its security from outside aggression. At this point, you can have security cooperation, but does it mean that Russians will not be advancing their borderization policy in Georgia? In sum, the ongoing cooperation has a lot of potential and in the long term, my only question would be, to what extent is this cooperation based on a strategic goal the two countries are aiming to achieve?
What areas can be advanced as part of such cooperation?
One good news is that U.S.-Georgia security cooperation has been marked by the recent defense sales, namely Javelins, to Georgia. At the same time, it should be noted that if the bilateral cooperation is happening in the absence of either American or broader regional strategy, the issue that emerges will be how to deal with Russia’s asymmetric challenges on the ground?
Do you think there is no strategy?
I do not think there is any. There are policies, individual ones, which are sometimes active, sometimes reactive. But, they are not part of a strategy. It is clear that we have to support Georgia, its independence, democracy and security. However, there is absolutely no clarity about: a) How these things interact with each other, in terms of what the relationship between Georgia’s democracy and security is; b) What is the regional context? By saying this, I mean that there is no regional context, where Georgia is put, strategically.
What are key opportunities for both countries to take advantage of?
The good news here is that Georgia has relatively predictable security environment, which means that Russians are doing a lot of things on the ground, but you do not have an immediate threat of military conflict. Russians tried it once and they did not achieve their goal. As you know, their goal was not Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Tskhinvali Region), their objective was the entire Georgia. In Crimea, Russians took the peninsula, when they could not take Ukraine. In a nutshell, from the Georgian side, there is an opportunity to create a long-term, clear strategic orientation. At this point, Georgia has such an orientation with regards to the west, but not with regards to how to handle Russia.
On the United States side, there is a deeper problem. Under the Obama administration, the United States lost its strategic vision in this region (Central Asia-Caucasus, up until Ukraine). And, when Ukraine crisis started, the link between democracy and security was still unclear from the western perspective. In Saakashvili’s period, there was a push from the U.S. government to deepen democracy in the region, because it would increase security. So, today, I see an absolute need for a strategy, and it is not even only a Georgia one. It is a broader strategy for the Caucasus and for the broader region, ranging from Turkey and the Middle East all the way to the rest of Europe.
Do you think this is feasible?
I think, it is feasible on the level of bureaucracy. The U.S. political leadership is too confused and I do not think this is a presidential level at this point. But, if you look at the cabinet level, I think it is realistic.
What are some key limitations for the United States and Georgia in this process?
One of the limitations may be perception of Georgia as an island, without a regional context. You can have bilateral relationships, but if you deal with the regional countries separately, it will be a weakness. It, rather, should be part of a broader U.S. strategy.
How do you see advancement of such regional context given dissimilar interests of the regional players?
If you want to succeed on the broader region, security-wise, you have to separate democracy and security from each other. This does not mean that democracy is no longer relevant. But, more emphasis should be out on the wider context and advancing security cooperation with both democratic and less democratic states.
What do you think it takes for Georgia to increase its strategic value for the United States?
The key question for me is Georgia’s presence – in terms of what it says and does. Even though Georgia has an excellent Ambassador in Washington, who is being a strong spokesperson for his country, the effort is not sufficient. Under the previous administration, there were many people, including President Mikheil Saakashvili himself, who was very active in Washington. And, he was not the only person. There were others, who were writing in international newspapers, frequently speaking at conferences and telling Americans why Georgia matters and why should they care. Nowadays, the policy is different.
In addition, there were voices in Georgia, who maintained that Georgia should not bother its allies. I think, that is a wrong approach. Georgia constantly has to be badgering people, which will make its positions stronger.
How would Russia try to influence advancing U.S. security engagement in Georgia?
My belief has always been that when Russians understand that there is something happening they cannot stop, they back off and choose another way. In 2007-08, they saw an opening, including the weak Bush administration and disunity within NATO; they also saw Kosovo as an opportunity to invade Georgia and they did it. But the moment when they realized that they could not change the government, they took Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region, which was already outside of Georgian control.
If you want to have an example, you should talk to the Baltic states. Their relations with Russia much improved after they got NATO membership. Russians understood that they lost a battle and they accepted the consequences. So, in this context, if the U.S. action was based on a strategy and was long term in nature, and Russians understood that they can do nothing about it, it would work well. Unfortunately, right now, it is not the case. Russia has penetrated Georgia’s civil society and media, using its tools pretty effectively. By such actions, Russians are communicating with Georgian citizens that any bold moves against Moscow’s interests will have consequences.
How do you see the future of Georgia’s security and foreign policy?
Georgia has to make itself more attractive for the rest of Europe. For instance, Alasania did it. With his cultivation of relations with the French defense minister, he advanced the bilateral cooperation very much. I can even quote the French minister, who said that without Georgia, the French mission in the Central African Republic would not have been possible. That is an example of how France, which was very cautious about Georgia’s security matters, was cultivated into a supporter. Today, Georgians should be strategic in their thinking about what the rest of Europe needs and “how can we help them.” Too many people in Europe think that Georgia is asking them for defense. The narrative should be: “I am asking you not to defend me, but to give me an opportunity to defend myself.”