By: Geoffrey Van Orden CBE, Distinguished Fellow
The security and defence policies of Britain and the other Western democracies are approaching a strategic crossroad. NATO has launched a “reflection process” to strengthen its political dimension. The British government is embarking on the most comprehensive appraisal of national security strategy in a generation. Yet the coronavirus plague will dramatically affect the direction of both reviews. The massive economic impact of Covid-19, with its implications for defence expenditure, and the clear evidence of the devastating potential of biological weapons, will inevitably cause a major rethink of national security resources, capabilities and threats. Meanwhile, the UK remains the leading European military power and NATO ally. Its exit from the EU does not affect this except that the UK is now less able to constrain EU ambitions to create defence structures separate from NATO, which will only weaken the Alliance and delight potential enemies.
Much has rightly been made of the importance of the Commonwealth network as part of the U.K.’s increased global presence – in terms of trade and security as well as values. There is great scope for enhancing this – but we should not forget other friends such as Georgia, on Europe’s vital eastern flank, one of just six Black Sea states, and a country where Britain has interests at stake.
At a time when NATO’s cohesion is under threat, and most European allies spend far too little on defence, Georgia is regarded as one of NATO’s closest operational partners. It contributes troops to the NATO Missions in Afghanistan at a higher level proportionately than any other country. The pro-Western government in Tbilisi is determined to fulfil the decision made by the NATO Alliance at its 2008 Bucharest Summit that Georgia will became a member of NATO. This is a goal shared both by the ruling Georgian Dream party, and by the population at large, where support for NATO membership runs at around 80%.
If this sounds fanciful – a small country, 20% of which has been illegally occupied by Russia since 2008, joining the largest Western military alliance – the process is in fact well underway. The NATO-Georgia Commission, meeting in Batumi in October 2019, agreed to refresh the so-called Substantial NATO-Georgia Package, already in existence for five years. It underlined increased Alliance support for Georgia including Coast Guard training and enhanced interoperability between Georgian patrol boats and NATO’s Standing Naval Forces. The Georgian government has recently acceded to NATO’s cybersecurity platform, becoming only the second non-NATO country (after Finland) to join the platform. The timing is no coincidence. Tbilisi has been on the frontline not just of territorial aggression but of cyber and disinformation attack from Russia, and the Georgian government, working hand-in-hand with the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and US intelligence services, has exposed Russian GRU efforts to cripple parts of the Georgian government’s online ecosystem.
It is for this reason that Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia has explicitly called on Britain, and other NATO partners, to engage more assertively and consistently to support Georgia’s security, arguing that “Georgia’s geography, its defense and security attachments, and its proven commitment to Western and trans-Atlantic objectives make it an essential pillar of emerging strategies for NATO cooperation”.
Britain is no stranger to the Caucasus and fully supports Georgia’s economic and security aspirations including Georgia’s integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Its commitment is set out in the comprehensive Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed by Boris Johnson’s British Government with Georgia in October 2019. In addition to a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, the 359-page document includes measures to combat terrorism and organized crime, respect the territorial integrity of Georgia and improve regional cooperation and confidence-building, as well as security undertakings. It should be noted that Britain also has strong positive relations with two of Georgia’s key neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan, for which Georgia provides the crucial bridge for the export of its Caspian oil to Europe.
The Georgian economy is growing at an impressive 4.5% per year, and the World Bank rates the country as the seventh best place in the world to do business (above 26 of the 27 EU countries) and recent economic and social reforms have resulted in poverty being cut in half in just a decade. Georgia places 12th in the latest global Index of Economic Freedom published by the Heritage Foundation, just 2 points below the UK and, incredibly, ahead of the US. The economic opportunity for the UK, and Georgia, is clear.
A dynamic economy is a key condition for security in such a volatile region of the world, stable democracy is another. Recent democratic reforms – the Georgian Dream government led a cross-party agreement on a new electoral system that was welcomed by the US, NATO and EU – have cemented Georgia’s pro-Western commitment.
For our part, Britain can once more engage in its own way with friends in many different – and challenging – areas of the world now that it has reasserted full control of its foreign relations, international aid, trade, and economic and security partnerships. Clearly, Britain’s long-standing and closest allies will be the priority for these intensified global relationships. But there are many other countries that respect the integrity and stability of British institutions, our intelligence, security and defence expertise, and the practical, robust experience that Britain brings to world affairs. Georgia was among the first of our friends to back post-Brexit Britain and seek a close future partnership. In return, we must now show our good faith and strengthen our relationship both with Georgia and with its friendly neighbours.