Georgia's Dangerous Quest for American Weapons

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From K Street lobbying to interviews with Newsweek, Georgia is doing everything it can to secure American arms against Russia. But is that really a good idea?

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David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Since Mikheil Saakashvili took power in Georgia, the small post-Soviet republic has become one of the U.S.'s most devoted allies. It has been the highest per capita troop contributor in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- even while two of its erstwhile territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, host hostile Russian forces.

And Georgia hasn't been particularly shy about suggesting that it sees its contributions to U.S. military missions as part of a quid pro quo. "As soldiers here, we help the American soldiers," one Georgian corporal in Iraq told the New York Times in 2007. "Then America as a country will help our country." In Afghanistan, it's volunteered to serve in the dangerous Helmand province, where seven of its soldiers have been killed so far.

The help Georgia wants in return is protection against its nemesis, Russia, and to help Georgia regain control over Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Thus far, though, aside from rhetoric, the U.S. hasn't given much actual help. George W. Bush visited Tbilisi in 2005 and called Georgia "a beacon for democracy." Last month, a U.S. Marine Corps general effusively praised Georgians' service in Afghanistan, noting: "Georgians like to fight."

But talk is cheap, and there has never been much action to back up those words. Tellingly, when war broke out in 2008 over South Ossetia, the U.S. -- after giving Saakashvili the impression that Washington would have his back in the case of conflict with Russia -- stood by, except for one poignant move: U.S. military planes flew the Georgian soldiers serving in Iraq back home. But, by the time those troops got home, the war had already been lost.

Georgia's primary security goal for most of Saakashvili's rule has been to join NATO, and the U.S. did back that, but to no avail -- the war with Russia took serious consideration of NATO membership off the table. After all, had Georgia been a member at the conflict's onset, it would have forced the U.S. and the rest of NATO to declare war against Russia. Now Georgia has a new target in its sights: American weapons. Last year, it began a serious push to get the U.S. to provide it with "defensive weapons," in particular air defense and anti-tank systems.

Providing Georgia with weapons would perpetuate a "Berlin Wall mentality"

"[L]eaving Georgia defenseless doesn't help the situation," Saakashvili told Newsweek. "Georgia cannot attack Russia, while a defenseless Georgia is a big temptation for Russia to change our government through military means. ... As part of ongoing security cooperation, we hope that the U.S. will help us with defense-weapons capabilities."

Lately, he's upped the rhetorical stakes by claiming that only the U.S. could sell Georgia the weapons it needs to protect itself: "What Georgia really needs is something that it cannot get from anywhere else and that's anti-air and anti-tank [weapons] and that's completely obvious. ... That's where should be the next stage of the cooperation."

The U.S. has never been a particularly large supplier of weapons to Georgia, which inherited Soviet equipment upon independence and then came to rely on other former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries for reinforcements. While the Pentagon has set up a number of military training programs with Georgia, those programs focus on preparing the Georgians for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the issue of American weapons has now come to define the state of the U.S.-Georgia relationship, with Georgia and its allies in Washington arguing that if the U.S. doesn't give Georgia weapons, it's kowtowing to Russia for the sake of a wishful-thinking "reset." U.S. Senator John McCain is the leading advocate for weapons provisions; in March he told a Congressional hearing, "It is hard for me to understand, since the Russians still occupy territory that is clearly Georgian territory and continue to threaten Georgia, and yet we're not even giving them weapons with which to defend themselves. It is not comprehensible."

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Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at The Bug Pit.

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