American officials have been hesitant to label Russian military advances into eastern Ukraine as an invasion, calling it a “Russian-directed counter-offensive,” for instance.
But the Obama administration has sharpened some of its rhetoric towards Russia in subtle but still significant respects, as a seemingly-innocuous and little commented-upon press readout from August 22nd demonstrates.
On the same day that a Russian “aid convoy” reportedly entered southeastern Ukraine, the office of the Vice President released a readout of his conversation with Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili. In it, Biden “underscored his support for Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations.”
At a particularly sensitive moment in U.S.-Russian relations, Biden confirmed the U.S. was still backing a policy that Moscow has long opposed and considers something of a red line (In March, Obama said that neither Georgia or Ukraine were on the path to NATO membership, although that was likely a misstatement in Georgia’s case).
Georgian NATO membership would permanently remove the former Soviet republic from Russia’s orbit. Practically, it would mean that Russia would risk war with the entire NATO alliance if it ever invaded Georgia, which it did as recently as 2008. Symbolically, it would place one of the most integral of the former Soviet states firmly in the European camp — something that Moscow might see as a provocation unto itself.
But this was no gaffe. Biden’s support appears in a readout of a phone conservation, a vetted statement that was likely deliberately and carefully crafted. So the U.S. still supports Georgia’s NATO aspiration, even if it’s unclear what that means in practicality, or whether Biden’s statement was anything more than a rhetorical ploy.
“The question is the degree to which the U.S. really means it,” Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. State Department staffer, told Business Insider.
Biden might just mean that the U.S. supports Georgia taking a number of procedural steps that may or may not result in NATO membership — a process that took Albania, which joined in 2009, over a decade. Or he might mean that hte U.S. wants to actively advance the process to counter Russian aggression.
The latter possibility seems unlikely, as it would only ratchet up the confrontation between Putin and the west and lessen the chances of a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis.
It’s more likely that the U.S. is talking about Georgian NATO membership to remind Russia of the NATO block’s range of strategic options — but without committing itself to a specific course of action.
“The logic is to give Georgia a Membership Action Plan and put them on this path that still changes the situation on the ground and Moscow’s calculation,” Laura Linderman, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council and expert on the Caucasus region, told Business Insider.
By even talking about Georgian accession to NATO, the U.S. is telegraphing its intentions to Putin without throwing its weight behind anything more than a vague and notional policy. “Putin operates in a way that forces a black and white view of countries on Russia’s periphery — hey have to choose the West or choose us,” Linderman explains, “and Putin tends to take any kind of equivocating statement as a sign of weakness.”
This doesn’t mean that letting Georgia into NATO would necessarily be a smart policy. The inclusion of a weak and sometimes-unstable frontline state with a history of conflict with Russia might weaken the mutual defence guarantee at the heart of the alliance. And Georgia has an active border conflict with Russia — along with Russian troops stationed inside the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are Georgian territory under international law.
But it would put a fragile and Western-leaning country behind the strongest defence alliance in modern history, giving it the security needed to build institutions while denying Moscow of another area of influence. The Ukraine situation has also convinced Georgian leaders that their future lies with integration into Europe — even if it’s a reminder of what Putin is capable of.
“The Ukraine crisis is an opening for Georgia to push for a closer relationship with NATO in some ways,” says Linderman. “It also leaves them much more vulnerable. They’re in a tough spot.”
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