Op-ed: Why has Georgia been allowed to buy Javelins?
American anti-tank missiles in the political context
After the August War of 2008, a secret embargo was placed on Georgia. The West felt that Tbilisi was in some way responsible for the outbreak of the war and avoided contact with the Georgian government at the time.
Then there was the ‘reboot’ policy announced by Russia which entailed freezing political and military support to Georgia in order to maintain the post-war status quo in the region.
Georgia’s leadership at the time had to mobilize as many domestic resources as possible and move towards developing their own military industry. Despite a number of achievements during this time (for example an armored car which was developed for infantry), the secret embargo created more problems because the country was not producing anti-air and anti-tank weaponry.
During the presidency of Barack Obama, resources for anti-air and anti-tank defences for Georgia were established in a manner that promised a new way forward. But, the situation was clearly not only due to the ‘Georgian factor’ [referring to Georgia as the cause of the 2008 war and the resulting embargo] but also due to the Obama Administration trying as far as possible to get involved in Ukraine and in Syria. True, the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbass discredited Russia, which allowed the ‘guilt’ of the 2008 August war to be lifted from Georgia. But the purchase of weapons for Tbilisi was still an insurmountable barrier.
Naturally, the decision by Washington to sell Javelins was not made easily. This decisive step was made possible by a slew of factors.
Firstly, the obvious interference of Russia in the presidential elections of the USA. Washington is a ‘heavy’ and slow political giant who is never quick to act. But the moment it starts to move, it’s impossible to stop it. Now the giant has risen up to send a response to Russia. More and more sanctions, war games with Georgia, the sale of Javelins – all of this may not have come to pass were it not for the unprecedented arrogance of Moscow.
Most likely, Russia now regrets that it tried to covertly interfere in America’s elections with the subsequent uncorking of champagne as a sign of victory for Donald Trump. America has woken up with all the ensuing consequences.
Moreover, the sale of Javelins to Georgia means that America is looking at Georgia as a serious and responsible player that can be trusted with such weaponry which will be used only in an emergency situation and will not be given over to a third party. The sale will be accompanied by the arrival of American instructors which will provide for the strengthening of the political-military relations between the USA and Georgia.
The sale of such weaponry will not take place without a reaction from Moscow. Russia aims to minimize American influence in the region, and would like to see Georgia as defenceless as possible which would allow her to blackmail the country and dictate its political will.
There are no other reasons for Moscow’s irritation – everyone understands that Georgia is not going to attack Russia, nor is it going to retake its lost territories by force.
The idea of Georgia attacking Russia sounds so absurd that it’s barely worth talking about – but in 2008, this is just what Russia did and concretely tried to prove that the Georgian army attacked the positions of Russian peace keepers. This accusation was later refuted by the EU Commission but Moscow still continued to repeat this accusation and was able to convince at least a part of its own population.
Javelins are a defensive form of weaponry which will not give Moscow any legitimate basis or opportunities to display aggression, though it has been well-known for a while now that for Moscow legitimacy is not necessarily very important. Putin’s Russia is not afraid of demonstrating its might despite the political price that they then have to pay. Aware of this, Tbilisi is as careful as it can be in its relations with Russia, governing itself by the principle ‘don’t annoy Russia’ to such an extent that policies would be meaningless.
However, it would seem that this line of thinking has been rethought, probably because Tbilisi has begun to feel the avid support of the USA. Moreover, an understanding is coming about that the Georgian Army, armed with Javelins, would be a tough nut to crack which would cost Russia dearly. The balance of power for us is a more reliable policy of deterrence than ‘don’t annoy the Russian bear’.
It is clear that Georgia would not be able to match the military might of Russia, even with the Javelin system. However, it will be able to inflict enough damage that, to Russia, aggression would appear to be useless from a military perspective. As for the political moment, this may not be a heavy price for Russia, since sanctions have already been imposed on it and new sanctions on the part of the West that could bring it down, are probably unrealistic.
In addition, if the history of Russia can teach us anything, it is the fact that Russia respects a strong and worthy opponent.
Georgia does not really want to be an opponent of Russia. Even though part of its territory is occupied by Russian troops, Georgia conducts a very flexible, ultra friendly policy as far as possible under such conditions by accepting Russian tourists in the millions and remaining open to Russian investments. But all this does not mean that Georgia has reconciled itself to the occupation or that it would reject self-defence in the event of a threat.
Tornike Sharashenidze is a professor at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA).
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