The secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization opened a new joint training base in Georgia on Thursday, promising the country could count on its western allies.
But with Georgia outside NATO, and many members reluctant to bring them in, there are serious questions about how far that promise will go and whether a new alliance training base will deter or provoke Russia.
Georgian officials said the new NATO training center will be a deterrent to Moscow, which Tbilisi has accused of incursions into Georgian territory and the kidnapping of nationals.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenbergcondemned Russia’s latest attempts to change the boundary of South Ossetia, the Georgian region occupied by Moscow’s forces. While not aimed at Russia, the center’s opening would ensure “NATO will be more present and more visible in Georgia,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
Alliance officials have insisted that the training center, as well as stepped-up NATO-Georgian military exercises, are carefully calibrated not to provoke.
Russian officials have long accused NATO of stoking tensions by expanding its influence toward the country’s borders. On Thursday, officials again called the training center provocative.
“The North Atlantic alliance’s placement of that kind of military facility in Georgia will be a serious destabilizing factor for security in the region,” Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
Alliance members continue to be reluctant to take any further steps to grant Georgia NATO membership, noting that Russian forces occupy about 20% of Georgian territory.
Still, Georgia has been the most active partner of the alliance, and currently provides the second highest number of troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. In acknowledgment of that work, NATO has been anxious to reward Georgia and help build up its defenses.
“NATO counts on Georgia. And Georgia can count on NATO,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in a news conference.
In an interview, Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, said the experience of her country is that Russia is more likely to be aggressive when NATO fails to live up to its promises of cooperation.
“Anything done jointly by Georgia and NATO deters Russia,” she said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Bruno Lété, a NATO analyst at the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says it is of little surprise that Moscow has reacted negatively to the training base.
“It perceives the center as aimed against Russia,” Mr. Lété said.
While NATO is keen on building up the defense capability of Georgia, Moscow is trying to keep the so-called frozen conflicts in the region going.
“Russia is not keeping the conflicts frozen, it is keeping them very active, with the aim of trying to destabilize the situation,” Mr. Lété said.
Analysts, including Mr. Lété, have said that NATO enlargement, particularly on Russia’s borders, seems off the agenda for the alliance, at least in the short and medium term.
But Ms. Khidasheli said joining NATO remains the goal in Tbilisi, and if new obstacles are put up between Georgia and membership in the alliance, Moscow will be encouraged to continue its aggression.
“Membership is not the only thing, but it is the most desirable thing,” she said.
U.S. military officials have said privately it would be extremely difficult to extend NATO protection to Georgia, given Russia’s close geographic proximity and the fact Russian forces occupy portions of the country.
But Ms. Khidasheli says Georgia’s location should not be a hurdle to the alliance but an asset.
“It is not about Georgia’s geography, it is about strategic interests,” she said.