US Secretary of State John Kerry began a two-day visit to Georgia and Ukraine today (6 July) to reassure NATO’s eastern friends they will not be abandoned to face Russia alone.
Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko will attend the Atlantic alliance’s summit in Warsaw on Friday (8 July), but as partners not as full members.
With large chunks of both countries already occupied by Russian forces, there is no prospect of either former Soviet republic joining NATO’s mutual defence pact soon.
Washington, however, is keen not to cede any more ground to President Vladimir Putin’s newly assertive Russia, and Kerry’s visit to Kyiv and Tbilisi is more than a symbol.
US and Georgian officials will sign a bilateral security agreement aimed at strengthening the small republic’s defences, a senior State Department official said.
“These are important members of the alliance, partners whose security means a lot to the United States,” she said.
“Their security interests and Euro-Atlantic aspirations – their aspirations to get closer to the European Union and NATO – matter to us,” she added.
Asked how the Kremlin might see such a visit ahead of the NATO summit, she smiled and said: “Russia can take whatever message it likes from this.”
During this week’s NATO summit, billed as the most important in a quarter century, member states are expected to re-endorse Georgia’s eventual membership.
“We stand by what NATO said in Bucharest in 2008,” the US official said, recalling the meeting when Georgia was told it could join at some point but was not formally put on the path to membership.
“We do see their future with NATO, but there’s more work to be done,” she admitted.
David Bakradze, Georgia’s Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, told AFP that the visit will take ties with the US “to a qualitatively new level” and help to bolster Georgian security and economic and democratic development.
Since a brief war in 2008, Russian troops have tightened their grip over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, putting them 20 minutes drive from the vulnerable capital.
Under the NATO treaty, members have an obligation of mutual defence and few Western capitals want a direct stand-off with a nuclear-armed Russia.
Putin’s army has also occupied Ukraine’s Crimea region, and he has backed pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, creating another headache for NATO planners.
Constantly alert to what it sees as post-Cold War Western efforts to surround and pressure Russia, the Kremlin firmly opposes NATO expansion on its borders.
“NATO’s activities don’t strengthen the security of its members, but on the contrary provoke tensions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned on Tuesday (5 July).
“NATO’s expansionist policy underlines the aggressive character of the organisation,” he declared.
With full NATO membership a distant dream and EU expansion plans in chaos after Britain’s vote to leave the bloc, Georgia and Ukraine must focus on domestic reform.
Kerry was to use his visit to Tbilisi to check in with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and opposition leaders on preparations for Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October.
Georgia is rare among former Soviet states in having organised successful democratic changeovers in power since leaving Moscow’s orbit — but this year will be a test.
The poll pits the premier’s Georgian Dream party, backed by billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, against former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is struggling to implement reforms promised under the Minsk Accord designed to halt the war in the east.
US officials will urge Kyiv to complete its side of the deal and vow to maintain pressure on the Kremlin to reciprocate.
After much debate, the European Union recently renewed the sanctions imposed on Russia for its role in destabilizing Ukraine, but only for another six months.
US sanctions remain, but officials fear Putin will seek to retain his military leverage in Ukraine while waiting for President Barack Obama to leave office in January.
Kerry will join Obama and other world leaders in Warsaw on Friday for the NATO talks.