The U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to Tbilisi was a confirmation of Washington’s commitment to partnering with Georgia and other post-Soviet republics in an attempt to curb any territorial ambitions Russia might have for the region.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Tbilisi, July 6, 2016. Photo: AP

On July 6, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Georgia. It appears that the main outcome of his visit was the signing of a bilateral Memorandum to deepen the defense and security partnership between the U.S. and Georgia.

By signing this document in Tbilisi, Washington is hoping to participate in the modernization of Georgia’s armed forces. At the same time, the United States has once again declared “its commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.”

To what extent can the U.S. Secretary of State’s visit be seen as a new stage in the development of cooperation between Washington and Tbilisi? And, given the special attention that Moscow is paying to the South Caucasus, is it possible to consider any deepening of military-political cooperation between Georgia and the United States as an additional risk factor when it comes to regional security?

A closer look at the U.S.-Georgia partnership

Kerry’s visit was neither a surprise nor an impromptu event. Bilateral relations between the U.S. and Georgia are based on solid foundations and deep mutual interests. They have been developing in this direction for many years already. While the White House and the State Department fear Russia’s unchallenged dominance in the Caucasus, Tbilisi sees the U.S. as a counterweight to Russia. Both countries have undergone changes in their presidents and administrations, but the change in political scenery has had no impact on bilateral cooperation.

As far back as 1998, the U.S. Border Service began providing organizational and methodological assistance in the creation of the Border Guard of Georgia. In April 2002, the United States and Georgia signed an agreement on military assistance – the Georgia Train and Equip Program, in which 2,000 Georgian Special Forces were trained in fighting against terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge.

At that time, the U.S. administration formulated its position as follows: the fight against terrorism (including immigrants from the North Caucasus republics) in Georgia is necessary, but without the military intervention of Russia, and on the basis of the recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity.

With the coming to power of President Mikheil Saakashvili, U.S.-Georgian cooperation reached a new level. However, this also formed high expectations in Tbilisi, which in turn led to the “unfreezing” of two ethno-political conflicts – in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the subsequent “Five-Day War” involving Russia.

As a result, a new status quo was formed in the Caucasus, in which Russia and the West have virtually divided their spheres of influence. Moscow became the patron of the two breakaway republics, and the United States strengthened its positions in Georgia. There were two symbolic events of this watershed development: the recognition of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian Republics by Moscow (August 2008) and the signing of a strategic partnership between the U.S. and Georgia (January 2009).

The second section of this document was specifically devoted to cooperation in the defense and security sphere. In fact, it explains in detail why Georgia should join NATO, and why, currently, its participation in the project would have to be limited.

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To a large extent, the very appearance of this strategic partnership was an attempt to compensate for the absence of real support given to Tbilisi during the Five-Day War against Russia in August 2008, as well as the unwillingness of NATO to accept into its ranks new members from former Soviet republics in Transcaucasia.

In many ways, the document signed seven years ago identified the basic trends in the relations between Georgia and the West that exist to this day. Georgian foreign policy is following two vectors – European integration and building cooperation with NATO, without any clear prospects of joining that Alliance in the foreseeable future.

However, almost counter-intuitively, the absence of imminent NATO membership has made prospects for bilateral relations between Tbilisi and Washington even better. The United States has already successfully tested this model with other countries that for various reasons cannot or could not join NATO, but for one reason or another, the White House considers as important allies. Thus, Kerry’s visit to Georgia in July 2016 should be seen in this context.

Implications of Kerry’s visit

It should be noted that Kerry visited Tbilisi just one day before the NATO Summit opened in Warsaw – a forum that today is being considered as a new watershed divide in relations between Russia and the West.

In the Polish capital, Georgia did not get a Membership Action Plan and did not come closer to the Alliance, in terms of a formal membership in it. Brussels and Tbilisi only agreed on “new initiatives and steps” to “strengthen the defense potential, cooperation and stability” of Georgia, and prepare the country for NATO membership.

However, membership in a military-political bloc is one thing, while continued cooperation and partnership with the United States is quite another. For Washington, when it comes to acting within the framework of its foreign policy (as opposed to the integration project), there are no hard limits, even in the face of any objections from the recalcitrant Germans and French.

Of course, inside the American establishment (in the White House, in the State Department and in Congress) politicians continue to debate the “cost issue” of confrontation with Russia, including the creation of specific foreign policy tools (in the form of linkages with post-Soviet republics) to restrain the Kremlin from its plans for “re-Sovietization” and dampen Moscow’s “imperial aspirations.”

Be things as they may, Washington is simply unwilling to recognize the post-Soviet space as the geopolitical domain of Moscow. Hence, we see these attempts of building cooperation with countries of the former Soviet Union, not only in the NATO format, but also on a bilateral basis.

And the fact that Georgia did not receive its long-awaited Membership Action Plan in Warsaw will not make the U.S.-Georgian partnership disappear. Nor will the special interest of Washington to participate in “alternative energy” projects of the Transcaucasian states (as opposed to the “energy imperialism” of the Kremlin), which are viewed as a way to contain Russian ambitions in Eurasia.

Strictly speaking, Kerry’s July visit was a confirmation of Washington’s commitment to this course. However, there is nothing new here, no new developments, just a continuation of the traditional line.

U.S.-Georgia relations under Obama

According to Shota Apkhaidze, a Georgian researcher, the “golden age” in relations between the U.S. and Georgia ended during the rule of Saakashvili and the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush.

It is difficult to agree with this thesis. Indeed, with the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama and his team in the White House, Washington stopped being so accommodating to Tbilisi. Moreover, Georgia is no longer being positioned as the “beacon of democracy” - and hardly even a post-Soviet country in transition. However, in some sense, American support for this Caucasian republic after 2009 has become clearer and more systematic.

First, the Obama team moved away from the excessive personalization of Georgian politics. The White House and State Department proved that it was possible to develop effective bilateral relations without Saakashvili. The main thing is not the individual leaders, but an overarching vision of foreign policy prospects.

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Second, the Obama administration, during all its years, never questioned the territorial integrity of Georgia or its attitude towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moreover, don’t forget about the U.S. Congress, which adopted a resolution condemning the “Russian occupation”. Even the “reset” of relations with Moscow did not change this line, and a new confrontation simply strengthened it further.

In this context, Kerry’s visit cannot be underestimated. Georgia will be holding parliamentary elections soon, and a change of government in this country, in Washington’s view, should not disrupt the continuity of the country’s foreign policy. Hence, the Secretary of State’s attention to keeping communication channels open, not only with the government, but also with the opposition. Today’s leading opposition force in Georgia is the United National Movement (UNM), which was in power in the years 2004-2013.

No matter how much the UNM representatives oppose the ruling “Georgian Dream” coalition, the Americans expect them to continue their strategic cooperation with the United States. Nevertheless, observers cannot help but see a certain growth in Euroscepticism in Georgia (as well as skepticism when it comes to relations with the U.S.). It seems that these issues also have not escaped the attention of Kerry.

Moreover, the U.S. Secretary of State’s visit had another symbolic meaning as well. Most likely, this is Kerry’s last trip to Georgia in an official capacity. It is seen as the summing up of Obama’s policy achievements in the South Caucasus – and representatives of the current administration would like to see it end as a success story. This, of course, does not depend on them alone.

The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.