One key, but answered, question is whether Georgia expects to buy the weapons or for the U.S. to give them as aid. When asked, Georgian officials duck the question, saying that discussions aren't that far along. But it's one thing to allow Georgia to buy weapons, and quite another to use U.S. taxpayer dollars to fund them. But the numbers suggest that Georgia could never afford American hardware on its own.
Georgia is poor and Americans weapons are expensive. Tbilisi's estimated defense budget for 2011 is about $370 million, of which one-third -- $123 million -- is available for procurement. The United Arab Emirates, to take one point of comparison, has just spent $7 billion on U.S. air-defense equipment. A single Patriot anti-aircraft missile costs nearly $6 million, meaning that 20 missiles -- to say nothing of the launchers, radars or other essential components -- would be all Georgia could afford with an entire year's budget..
If Georgia actually wants to use its own money for weapons, then, it would do better to buy weapons from a cheaper source. Russia has intimidated many of Georgia's former arms suppliers, especially in Eastern Europe and Israel, into ending cooperation with Georgia. But other arms manufacturers, such as China, India, Brazil, or Turkey, could surely step in.
Even if Georgia were armed to the teeth, however, it's not clear how much good it would do them. Russia's military is so much stronger than Georgia's that additional weapons would be a moot point. Or worse: Though Georgia repeatedly emphasizes that it is only seeking "defensive" weapons, any defensive weapon makes aggression easier by improving defense against a counterattack. Georgia touts the threat of a Russian attack, but it was in fact Georgia which fired the first shots that precipitated the 2008 war with Russia, in an apparent belief that Russia would stand idly by.
In a paper published earlier this year, two scholars of the region, Cory Welt and Samuel Charap, argue that providing Georgia with weapons would perpetuate a "Berlin Wall mentality" of eternal conflict, and block the path that Georgia really needs to take with regard to its lost territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That, Welt and Charap write, is the slow, painstaking process of "conflict transformation that reduces tensions, brings people together across the conflict lines, creates trust, builds trade links, and normalizes contacts among authorities."
But subtlety is not Saakashvili's strong suit. While American weapons may not make any difference on the ground, they would be a tangible sign of hard support from the West, which Saakashvili clearly craves. Over the last few years, Georgia has perhaps done more, for less reward, than any other ally of the United States. That's not an argument for shipping Georgia free missile systems, of course. It just makes the situation all the more tragic.
* This post originally stated that Georgia's previous ambassador to Washington was relieved of his duties because of his failure to secure arms from the United States. The reporting on this matter is, in fact, inconclusive.