- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The refusal by the U.S. and Western European allies to let Georgia into NATO is an “open invitation” to Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand his policy of aggression and land seizures in the region, the former Soviet republic’s top defense official said.

In deciding last week to once again postpone her nation’s nearly decade-old membership bid, NATO ministers missed a crucial opportunity to “prove the alliance’s strength and the whole idea of why it was created in the first place, for a safer and more secure Europe,” said Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli.

In an interview with The Washington Times on Monday, Ms. Khidasheli also cited some positive momentum in Georgia’s wider military relationship with the West — particularly with Tbilisi and Washington close to sealing a major and long-elusive weapons procurement deal, she said. Georgia also reached an agreement with France in June to purchase an advanced air defense system through two French companies.

Georgia for years has sought Washington’s approval for the sale of lethal American-made weaponry as anti-tank systems, but U.S. officials have resisted out of fear that such transfers would increase the chances for a return to aggression between Georgia and Russia, which fought a brief border war in 2008.

Since that time, Russian troops have occupied the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, creating a “frozen conflict” that some analysts say was a warm-up for Mr. Putin’s moves to annex Crimea and back a separatist movement in Ukraine.

“We do have ongoing negotiations with U.S. companies, and I think we are almost there,” Ms. Khidasheli said, adding that she expects a deal before President Obama leaves office in early 2017.

Ms. Khidasheli said “many people in Georgia” are eager for the weapons deals “even more than NATO membership” because of a sense that the U.S. is “the most loyal and strongest partner for us.”

Since becoming Georgia’s first female defense minister in May, Ms. Khidasheli, 42, has met with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and described Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, as “a good friend of Georgia.”

At the same time, she implied that the Obama administration and U.S. political leaders in general could and should be doing more to promote Georgia’s campaign to join NATO — if only in gratitude for her country’s unwavering support of U.S. military action over the past 15 years, from Afghanistan and Iraq to the campaign to train Syrian rebels.

But the U.S. and its partners struck a blow to Georgia’s NATO hopes last week while the 28-member alliance extended an invitation to the much smaller Eastern European nation of Montenegro.

Analysts say the hesitation about Georgia reflects several factors.

Some see extending an invitation to a nation in a frozen conflict with Moscow as a recipe for renewed aggression between Georgian and Russian troops. With Georgia in the club, NATO would be required by its own bylaws to become directly involved in protecting Georgian forces if violence breaks out.

Ms. Khidasheli questioned the idea that NATO is “afraid of antagonizing Moscow.” Rather, she said, Washington and its Western European partners are waiting for opportune geopolitical “momentum” to offer Georgia membership.

But, she added, “I hate to see my country put in this time slot — in the waiting room, where anything can happen, like it happened in 2008.”

“If Georgia is attacked tomorrow, what are our partners going to do?” she asked. “I don’t expect that we will have armies lined up coming to Georgia to defend it.”

Continual delay by NATO, Ms. Khidasheli added, will send a dangerous and negative message to other nations in the region that are struggling in a post-Cold War political world whether to side with the West or seek an accommodation with Mr. Putin’s Russia.

“Success on the Georgian issue,” she said, “is of vital importance for the United States and for the Western European countries because everybody else is looking at us. Azerbaijan is looking at Georgia. Armenia is looking at Georgia. The entire region of Central Asia is looking at Georgia with the [idea] that if it works with [Georgia], then it’s worth trying and that it’s worth working for this cause.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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