As Georgia plunges into yet another phase of internal political instability, ties with Western partners deteriorate, and America is increasingly looking away from the wider Black Sea region, Moscow sees an opportunity for rapprochement with Tbilisi.
Since the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit Georgia’s NATO/EU membership prospects have never been high. The limits were significant ranging from internal to foreign pressures. Russia’s pushback was decisive. Its military footprint in Abkhazia and South Ossetia effectively precluded Tbilisi from forging full-scale institutional ties with the Western alliances as a militarily congested South Caucasus made it highly unlikely that NATO would enter the fractured region.
Thus, Russia primarily benefited from its military preponderance. Presently, however, beyond the increased military footprint in the region following the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, the Kremlin has other advantages. The growing troubles in America-led world order, decreasing momentum of liberal internationalism, and US’s shift from western Asia to the wider Indo-Pacific region create favorable conditions for Russia to project its power more effectively along its borders. The Black Sea region and the South Caucasus are likely to experience firsthand the effects of the shift in America’s foreign policy.
This wider perspective helps us understand that Russia plays a long game. The West’s power in the lands what once constituted the Soviet space could not have been sustained continuously. Geography hampered greater engagement. Russia must have waited the Western dominance out. In the third decade of the 21st century it is obvious Moscow’s vision is partially realized. To be sure, this does not mean the collective West is altogether withdrawing from the wider Black Sea region and the South Caucasus. Security cooperation will continue as will the economic ties. The vision of the South Caucasus and Georgia as a corridor linking the Caspian basin to the Black Sea and eastern Europe will persist. Nevertheless, the willingness and readiness to engage the region to prevent potential security threats and Russia’s geopolitical moves will considerably decline.
Russia is also closely watching the developments in Georgia where over the past several months ties with the Western partners have notably soured. All point to the long-term process i.e., irrespective which party wins the elections the official Tbilisi is likely to reconsider some aspects of its foreign policy. As against the argument, feverishly upheld by the political opposition in Georgia that the ruling party Georgian Dream is reversing the country’s pro-Western path, the unfolding changes might be much subtler.
We might be dealing with the pursuit of a more balanced foreign policy approach. This involves building more equidistant external ties with both regional actors and global powers. For Georgia the fixation on the West increasingly no longer provides expected results –EU/NATO membership. This however does not mean Georgia will be abandoning its pro-Western stance. A multi-vector foreign policy would allow Tbilisi to have more space for maneuvering. A pro-Western stance will be complementary with greater ties with Turkey – a power that is seeking greater influence in the South Caucasus. China might be yet another natural option for Tbilisi. Beijing can invest billions in strategic places. Georgia is one such area and the case of Anaklia deep sea port showed that Black Sea ports are on Chinese radar. Deeper cooperation with the Persian Gulf countries, India, Japan, and Iran could provide significant economic stimulus for Georgia’s small and fragile economy.
In the age of the multi-polar world order building as diversified foreign ties portfolio as possible is a natural development for many countries, small and big. Indeed, Moscow sees that the pursuit of more balanced foreign policy is not only characteristic to Georgia but is an increasingly common foreign policy approach for many countries. Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, and Russia view balancing as a necessity and the requirement of the present age.
Therefore, the negative trend in the ties between Georgia and its Western partners creates favorable geopolitical situation for potential improvement of Georgian-Russian relations. Some initial signals were already sent by Moscow in July when Russia publicly made an offer of possibly restoring flights between Russian and Georgian cities. Then in early August the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow was ready to restore relations with Tbilisi “to the extent to which the Georgian side is ready for.” Though Tbilisi has not been particularly enthusiastic about Russian proposals, Moscow’s moves show there is a widening space for Russian diplomacy trying to leverage the growing contention between Tbilisi and its Western partners and the mounting internal pressure on the GD-led government.
It remains to be seen how far Moscow will go with its efforts. The timing of the proposed rapprochements shows that the Kremlin is closely watching the development in Georgia as the country is faltering from one crisis to another. Efforts to normalize ties follow the moment of intense infighting among the Georgian parties, which makes it highly likely that similar diplomatic moves will be made in the future especially as Georgia is bracing for the internal elections.
The Limits for Improvement
Whatever the level of rapprochement Tbilisi and Moscow will be able to reach, the limits both countries face will remain in place. The increase in construction of various military outposts along the demarcation line around the Tskhinvali Region (South Ossetia) by Russian troops results in tens of kidnappings and a generally highly insecure environment where Russian and Georgian forces face each other in close proximity. As Russia’s military moves in the South Caucasus show (for instance, peacekeeping force stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh), the military build-up (drills, opening of outposts, bases etc.) will continue in coming years. The growing emphasis on military tools transforms the South Caucasus into a militarily congested region, which fits into Russian long term plans of creating a strong disincentive for the West to offer NATO/EU membership to Georgia. This serves as a reminder for the Georgian public regarding the constrains potential rapprochement with Moscow holds.
Georgia’s NATO/EU aspirations will remain a major stumbling block to potential improvement of bilateral ties as the prevention of Georgia’s NATO/EU aspirations remains at heart of Russia’s long-term outlook for the South Caucasus. Another reason for limited improvement is Russia’s continuous recognition of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region as independent entities. Reversing the 2008 decision will damage Russia’s standing in the region, while for Georgia an extensive rapprochement will mean glossing over Moscow’s territorial aggression and effective control over the two territories.
With this in mind, politicians in Tbilisi and Moscow could only hope for a limited bilateral progress in the future. Local elections in Georgia are unlikely to change the dominate societal attitude toward Russia. Constrains and mutual distrust will continue to dominate the relations.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch