Bush School Student and CGS Student Affiliate Publishes Article in Chicago Tribune

Bush School Student and CGS Student Affiliate Publishes Article in Chicago Tribune


Benjamin Giltner: Georgia’s desire to join Western alliance could spark conflict with Russia. The US should step in.

Already a tragedy, signs indicate the Ukraine-Russia war is about to become uglier. Russia continues to engage in siege warfare, leaving Ukrainians with cities of rubble and carnage.

While the war in Ukraine deserves the world’s undivided attention, it is imperative to look beyond Ukraine and analyze scenarios that could lead to another armed conflict with Russia. The former Soviet republic of Georgia has already faced the wrath of the Russian military. After the breakaway province of South Ossetia battled Georgian forces in 2008, Russia stormed the stage, crushed the Georgian military, and recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent territories. With South Ossetia’s recent proposal to become a part of Russia and Georgia’s submission of an application to become a member of the European Union, armed tensions between these two countries may not yet be over.

There are two main risks to conflict erupting between Russia and Georgia. First, Russia is quickly becoming more isolated than ever. Sanctions have crippled Russia economically, dropping the Russian economy to what Institute of International Finance economist Elina Ribakova describes as the lowest point since the 1990s. Russia has not much else, short of war, for it to lose. Moreover, Biden administration officials haven’t been exactly subtle when they speak their mind on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

For his part, President Joe Biden exclaimed that Putin “cannot remain in power.” While Biden somewhat backtracked this statement, for Putin, the cat was out of the bag. This was his proof of Western hopes for regime change in Moscow, the likes of which once brought down Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi.

This leads to the risk of an attack on Georgia. Such an attack could serve as Putin’s rally around the flag to attempt to revive any lost support for his regime. Many Georgians are lashing out against incoming Russians fleeing their government. Georgian officials also unsurprisingly have voiced opposition to South Ossetia’s proposal to join Russia. Escalating tensions between these groups could give Russia the golden ticket of invasion excuses — responsibility to protect, stipulating that Russian intervention would prevent or end an atrocity. Russia has cited this responsibility to validate its military interference, most recently to justify its invasion of Ukraine, calling for the “denazification” of the country and making the absurd statement that the Ukrainian government was involved in “genocide.”

The second — and greater — of the two risks with the potential to spark conflict between Russia and Georgia lies with Georgia’s possible membership in the EU and NATO. This is a dangerous gamble as Russia opposes Georgian membership in either organization. As demonstrated from its war in Ukraine and the 2008 war against Georgia, Russia will go to great lengths to prevent countries in its near-abroad from joining Western alliances.

As Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian and European politics, claims, Russia looks at the EU as part of the U.S.-led international order, a system Moscow perceives as opposed to Russia. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger notes in his book “Diplomacy,” revisionist great powers that are left on the sidelines make for a dangerous international environment, oftentimes joining with other sidelined and dissatisfied powers. (Looking at you, China.)

To make matters more dire, political turmoil seems to be beginning to boil within Georgia, with Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili and many Georgians criticizing the country’s parliament for its complacency in supporting Ukraine against Russia. While Georgia has applied for only EU membership, it has conducted military training exercises with NATO forces within Georgia. As British journalist Tim Marshall makes clear in his book “Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World,” while Georgia may not be Russia’s No. 1 security concern, increased probabilities of Georgia joining NATO could once more set off Russian military action.

It is unlikely that such a conflict between Georgia and Russia, if it is to occur, will happen anytime soon. At least not at the current stage of Russia’s war with Ukraine, which has been strategically off the rails for Russia. As shown with residents of South Ossetia joining Russians to fight in Ukraine, Russia and its allies are preoccupied with the war in Ukraine for the indefinite future.

On the issue of national interests, as Defense Priorities fellow Mike Sweeney makes clear, there are no strategic benefits that outweigh the costs of Georgia joining NATO — meaning the U.S. should not offer Georgia NATO membership. On the issue of moral conscience, it is imperative that the U.S. not create the conditions for Russia to spill more blood. Negotiations, diplomatic solutions and compromises — by all parties involved — must be sought.

Georgia and the U.S. should acknowledge that Georgia joining a Western military alliance risks a war, while Russia should acknowledge Georgia’s security concerns. This could involve a negotiated settlement to have Georgia stand as a neutral country, in which its constitution would spell out its abstention from joining NATO, the EU and any Russia-aligned bloc. In exchange, South Ossetia could forgo integrating into Russia. On this issue, a grand strategy of restraint and morality merge in preventing another unnecessary war. The U.S. should lead this diplomatic charge.

Benjamin Giltner is a contributing fellow at Defense Priorities and a graduate student at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service, pursuing a track in national security and diplomacy, as well as concentrations in international politics and grand strategy, Europe and U.S. defense policy and military affairs.