Ben Hodges: Georgia Should Be in NATO Today (Interview)

We shouldn’t allow Russia to define Georgia – said Lt. General Ben Hodges, former Commanding General of the US Armed Forces while in Europe at the 5th Tbilisi International Conference jointly organized by the McCain Institute and the Economic Policy Research Center.

In an interview for GiSP (Georgian Institute for Security Policy) project “Talking NATO for Georgia,” we quizzed the general as to whether that noble intention is enforced in realpolitik terms or remains mere wishful thinking.

You support Georgia’s inclusion in the NATO London Summit. How likely is it?

I haven't heard any discussion about Georgia and the Membership Action Plan at NATO and we've only got three more months to the London Summit but I also haven't heard anything from the new government about this and I think they also have to make a case; you know they need it [MAP], and there can be no uncertainty about the commitment of the Georgian government to wanting to join NATO. I think that’s important; I'd like to hear that in the next few months.

Did you have any impression that they are less willing than they used to be?

I haven't heard the strong forceful commitment that this is important. I believe Georgia should be in NATO now, today. I believe that with Georgia as a member, stability and security in the Black Sea region will go up because Russia does not want to have a fight with NATO and so as long as the Alliance sticks together and there's no doubt about the cohesion of the Alliance, then I think people should not be worried about this being a provocation towards Russia.

You’ve said that Russia only respects strength. Is the West willing and ready to show it can be strong enough?

Since the Wales Summit five years ago, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Alliance has been acting more quickly than I think I've ever seen. Now, it's not perfect and there's a lot more to do but when you think about the challenge of getting all the nations together, even though every nation has the same view of the threats, our great alliance has moved quickly from Wales to Warsaw to Brussels and now coming up in London. All the improvements, the changes, the increases, more defense spending, modernization efforts, exercises, the continuous strong statements from Secretary General Stoltenberg about Georgia, I think these are all very positive and that's why I'm optimistic that this is going to happen: Russia does not get to define what Georgia wants.

On paper yes, but so far they have been quite successful in realpolitik terms.

Other nations should not let Russia define Georgia, nor should Georgia. The new government needs to be very loud and clear and to remove any doubt about its desire and orientation towards NATO, towards the West.

You said there should be no permanent US or NATO bases in Poland; that Moscow would claim it as Western aggression and that it would feed Moscow’s fears. Is that not another facet of the appeasement policy?

I don't care frankly if Russia is angry because they use every opportunity to create their own fairy tales about what the West is doing when in fact they know that the safest part of their frontier is the part that goes from Norway all the way to Georgia; they're never gonna be attacked from NATO or from neighboring countries like Georgia or Finland; it's not going to happen. The fairy tale is for their internal consumption so that's why I don't worry about Russian statements about provocation and that sort of thing. But I do know that some members of the Alliance worry about that and so my whole point with regards to the permanent station in Poland, and even in Georgia, is that the Kremlin is going to say something, that's why the burden is on us to make sure that the Alliance sticks together while doing these things. I'm personally not against the basing in Poland, I'm against anything that undermines the cohesion of the Alliance.

If Georgia's NATO membership hopes keep faltering, what about some sort of bilateral agreement between the US and Georgia, such as military bases. Would that be an effective deterrent?

The more things we do so it's clear in the Kremlin’s mind that the US is committed here, the better. I'm not talking about Article 5 but that doesn't mean the US won’t not work to protect important friends like Georgia. I can easily envision important agreements taking place, for example, Georgia becoming a place where US Navy ships would come in for visits, still within the provisions of the Montreux Convention, but I mean that would be like a dream scenario to have our Navy come into Anaklia for maintenance, refurbishment, port visits and then continue. I'd like to see the US and Georgia work on anti-submarine warfare and anti-ship capabilities using unmanned maritime systems- that's something Georgia could invest in, it's not terribly expensive.

The US decided to sell the Javelin missile systems to Georgia. Do you see that trend continuing?

There is strong support in NATO to do so, yes, but again the new government has to remove any doubts about its westward orientation and prove it's not under the influence of the Russians. That would be an important part of the calculations about what the US does here. Clearly it's to our strategic advantage that the Black Sea is surrounded by countries that are either NATO allies or friendly; so that while Russia, as a Black Sea nation, is able to exercise frequent navigation, everybody else should also; that Russia respects international law, Russia does not seize Ukrainian vessels that are moving through Ukrainian water- this completely false and illegal claim to the territory waters and economic exclusion zone around Crimea which is based on illegal annexation, and then of course the bridge over the Kerch Strait. I mean a brand new lieutenant on the first day in the army could immediately see that this was only a gate, not a bridge. The whole international community needs to be geared up about this. Georgia should be part of this Black Sea community that cooperates in terms of intelligence sharing, anti-submarine warfare, exercises, maintenance, infrastructure and enforcing freedom of navigation, and if Georgia becomes the logistical hub that I believe it can be – if it becomes the portal between Eurasia and Europe, the economic prosperity, the whole Black Sea region will significantly increase: Romanian friends and Constanta Port will be on the receiving end of what would come from Anaklia. Constanta right now is operating not even at a 1/3 of its real capacity but if you have Anaklia open, then Romania benefits and then their people will be incentivized, and the Bulgarians will also be incentivized to do their share of dredging to make sure the venue is available for shipping; Poland would benefit because then there would be a desire to increase the rail network; so just Anaklia will change the whole three seas, Baltic, Adriatic and Black Sea. This is again why Russia doesn't want it to happen. If this economic development takes place, you've got a lot of European countries, China and the US very interested in this and the security of Georgia, and all that makes it even more viable for Georgia to become a member of NATO because everybody is interested in their security and stability not just because of international law and respect of sovereignty or because Georgia is such a great place and their soldiers are so brave: there's economic reason as well.

Do you see that pressure from the Kremlin regarding Anaklia grinding this project to a halt?

A really strong, full-throated endorsement of the project from the government is needed. I haven't seen the government shoulder into it in the way big major projects such as the Hoover Dam saw full-fledged US government effort. What I see is excuses and legal controversies that frankly I'm skeptical about.

What's the room to maneuver for the government if Russia really applies some serious pressure?

What pressure does Georgia have? Obviously there are tourists, they come here so there's money that comes in; so it's up to the leadership here in Georgia what to do with this.

What about the creeping occupation?

We've got to continue to shine light on this, continue to document it, continue to get the international community to hold Russia accountable; that's what this conference is about- it provides a venue to highlight that Russia is completely flaunting international law.

By Vazha Tavberidze