The United States secretary of defense has visited Georgia and pledged a new level of military cooperation, even as the Georgian government is increasingly coming under criticism from Washington for its drift toward illiberalism and authoritarianism.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on an October 18 visit to Tbilisi, announced a new Georgia Defense and Deterrence Enhancement Initiative, which he told reporters would represent “an exciting new phase of bilateral security cooperation between our countries.”
Military aid already makes up a significant portion of the U.S.’s total aid package to Georgia, which is one of the largest aid recipients in the former Soviet Union: the $146 million in U.S. assistance it is projected to receive in 2020 puts it second only to Ukraine, which has more than 10 times the population. Of that $146 million, more than half – $76 million – is slated for security assistance, according to official U.S. data.
In 2017, the U.S. approved the sale, long sought by Georgia, of anti-tank Javelin missiles. The two countries regularly carry out large-scale military exercises in Georgia, and thousands of Georgian soldiers have been trained by U.S. forces. In 2020, the Pentagon allocated $10 million to train and equip Georgian special forces troops.
It was not immediately clear how the new program would add to the existing military cooperation. But the show of support from Austin was significant, coming amid a rocky patch in relations between Tbilisi and Washington.
In recent months U.S. officials have become increasingly critical of Georgia’s government. U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi Kelly Degnan in July said she was “exasperated” by the government’s withdrawal from a deal aimed at easing political tensions that had been painstakingly brokered by Tbilisi’s Western allies. And the State Department this summer hinted that it was considering imposing some kind of sanctions against Georgian officials following large-scale, government-endorsed right-wing pogroms against LGBT activists and journalists.
But Austin’s visit is a reminder that military relationships often transcend politics and questions of democracy and human rights. Ahead of his visit, Pentagon officials said the trip was intended as a show of support for Georgia’s firmly pro-Western, anti-Russia foreign policy orientation.
"We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the frontlines of Russian aggression," an unnamed senior defense official said, according to a Defense Department news release. Georgia was the first stop on Austin’s trip, which also was scheduled to include stops in Ukraine, Romania, and a NATO summit in Brussels.
Austin did allude to Georgia’s democratization in his public remarks. “The Georgian government must do its part by leveraging U.S. support to strengthen Georgia’s democracy and to make fundamental reforms to bring Georgia even closer to the West,” he said at a joint press conference with Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze.
By far the greater emphasis of the visit, however, was on security and foreign policy issues. Austin reiterated Washington’s support for Georgia’s stalled aspirations to join NATO and denounced Russia’s “occupation” of Georgian territory (referring to Moscow’s heavy financial and political support for the self-proclaimed governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in what is largely internationally recognized as Georgian territory).
The visit came during a period of heightened political tension in the country, following shortly after the arrest of opposition leader and former president Mikheil Saakashvili and just ahead of a second round of local elections, scheduled for October 30.
All mainstream political forces in Georgia embrace a strongly pro-Western, anti-Russian foreign policy orientation. The opposition nevertheless accuses the ruling Georgian Dream party and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili of being Russian stooges and has tried to frame politics in the country as a geopolitical struggle, a West-vs-Russia proxy battle.
“Let us stand together with the Georgian people against the Ivanishvili regime, which is dragging our homeland into Putin's Russia,” Saakashvili said in a message written for an October 14 rally in Tbilisi calling for his release. “We must not let this happen, and we must put Georgia back on the path to the West.”
Whatever resonance that message may have had, it was undercut by Austin’s warm rapport with ruling party officials, led by hardline Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
"Your visit is a very strong message from the United States in support of our territorial integrity and sovereignty," Garibashvili told Austin.
Austin also gave a boost to Georgia’s opposition to a newly proposed “3+3” regional grouping, promoted by Turkey in the wake of last year’s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The format would include the three countries of the South Caucasus and their three big neighbors: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. All six countries have endorsed the idea save Georgia, which objects to the group’s inclusion of Russia and exclusion of “Western” countries.
Austin was asked about the 3+3 proposal at the press conference.
“Russia, which currently occupies 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, should focus on honoring its 2008 ceasefire commitments before promoting any new discussion platforms,” he said, referring to the agreement ending that year’s war over South Ossetia. Russia has not withdrawn its armed forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia as stipulated in that agreement. “We certainly encourage the countries of the South Caucasus to work together to resolve disputes and to strengthen regional cooperation,” Austin added.
This article has been republished with permission from Eurasianet.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance reporter specializing in the former Soviet Union. His articles from the region have also appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and many other publications. He is also a regular contributor to Jane’s Defence Weekly and to EurasiaNet, where he also blogs on Eurasian defense and security issues at The Bug Pit.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is greeted by Georgian Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze, Georgian Chief of Defense, Major General Giorgi Matiashvili and U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnam in Tbilisi, Georgia, Oct. 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)|Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is greeted by Georgian Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze, Georgian Chief of Defense, Major General Giorgi Matiashvili and U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnam in Tbilisi, Georgia, Oct. 18, 2021. Along with Georgia, Austin will visit allies in Ukraine, Romania to reaffirm U.S. support for sovereignty and territorial integrity and underscore the importance of the strategic partnerships in addressing regional and global security challenges. Austin will also travel to Brussels, Belgium to participate in the NATO Defense Ministerial. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.