Seven years after his invasion of the former Soviet Republic, Russian President Vladimir Putin is busy in Georgia again. Since early summer, Russian-backed security forces have been inching further into the country from the breakaway province of South Ossetia to install signs unilaterally creating a new border with Georgia. As a result of the new demarcations, part of a BP-operated gas pipeline has now been shifted from Georgian to Russian control, and Georgian farmers have been losing their fields. As one local farmer noted, "I was in Georgia when I went to bed,” but "when I woke I was in South Ossetia.”
Georgia is not considered as important as Iran. Nor is ongoing shelling and gunfire in the Russian-sponsored war in eastern Ukraine as deadly as the conflict in Syria and Iraq. But, while Washington’s focus is elsewhere, Moscow continues to undermine the unprecedentedly peaceful European security order—an order that more than 180,000 Americans in World War II gave their lives to help establish and three generations of Americans then worked to ensure that such a sacrifice would not be fruitless.
Ukraine has been an especially disturbing case. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum offered Ukraine assurances from Russia, the US, and the UK that each would respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders in exchange for Kiev’s willingness to give up its nuclear arsenal. That a Putin-led Russian government has reneged on its promise has surprised few in the region. That the United States' signature on the agreement has been shown to be worthless, however, has triggered alarm bells throughout Eastern Europe.
In the case of Georgia, Washington for years held out the promise of NATO membership if only Georgians did their homework: reformed at home and showed they were likely to be a good ally by providing boots on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But like the hare at the dog tracks that the greyhounds can never quite catch, NATO membership was always just out of reach. This all came to a head at NATO's Bucharest Summit in 2008 when the alliance declined to offer Georgia (and Ukraine) a NATO Membership Action Plan, signaling to Moscow that Washington and Brussels had determined that Georgia resided firmly outside its security zone and would likely remain there. Four months later, Russian tanks, engines running, were parked 25 miles outside the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
While Washington’s focus is elsewhere, Moscow continues to undermine the unprecedentedly peaceful European security order—an order that more than 180,000 Americans in World War II gave their lives to help establish and three generations of Americans then worked to ensure that such a sacrifice would not be fruitless.
Today, the Georgian government continues to proclaim its commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration. But Georgians, not surprisingly given how little interest the West has shown in the young democracy’s security, have undertaken their own version of Ostpolitik. On the one hand, over the past two years, Georgian and Russian diplomats have engaged in negotiations aimed at improving bilateral political and economic ties. On the other hand, NATO has just opened a joint training center in Georgia, but whose size and the military exercises to be carried out there are designed, it’s said, not "to provoke” Moscow.
Imagine the predicament of a small nation. If you don't think you can count on the United States or the European Union—whose response to recent border incursions by the Russians was a resounding "steps perceived as provocative must be avoided"—you’re apt to hedge bets. Nearly a third of the Georgian population, up from 16 percent a year ago, now wants to join Mr. Putin's Eurasian Economic Union. And over half now opposes Georgian military participation in NATO and U.S. operations.
But why should we care?
The most basic reason is that Washington gave its word to the peoples of Georgia and Ukraine that if they wanted to become part of the West, Europe whole and free, we would help them do so. Credibility matters when it comes to world affairs.
Second, we only whet Putin’s appetite for further troublemaking by failing to respond now. Washington and the capitals of Europe seem to rest their policies today on the hope that his ambitions will be satiated by letting him have Crimea and by letting him have one more chunk of Georgian territory. But Putin has made no secret that his ambitions are much larger and include nothing less than undermining the existing European security order. That may seem improbable to us, but keeping the door ajar for him to continue to push and prod invites a crisis that we should avoid at all costs.
To shut that door, NATO needs a new strategy for aspirant countries. Georgia and Ukraine, Moldova, Montenegro, and Macedonia—they all find themselves in different circumstances, geographically and internally. But they're all under Russian pressure, and they all have segments of their populations that crave rule of law, democracy, and human rights. It remains in our interest to help them join the West. The "made in Moscow" alternative means damaged American credibility, fewer U.S. allies, and more broken destinies for nations that have surely suffered enough.
Jeffrey Gedmin, a former director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, is senior fellow, Atlantic Council and senior advisor, Blue Star Strategies.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.