Tag Archives: Russia

Did poor US planning prompt Russia’s rise in Syria?

A witness speaks about strategy in Syria. (Sam Fiske/MEDILL NSJI)

A witness speaks about strategy in Syria. (Sam Fiske/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON — Russia’s recent airstrikes in Syria are prompting concerns that America is losing power and political influence in the region. And the fact that Russia is reportedly targeting positions that include those held by U.S.-trained rebel factions – but not by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL or ISIS – is widely seen as underscoring the divide between American and Russian strategies.

“I believe Russia will first and foremost protect Assad and its port, and ensure its own continued role and influence,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in national security and defense policy at the Brookings Institution, said in an email, referring to Russia’s naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartus. “Defeating ISIL in the first instance matters less to them.”

Russia’s perceived intent to attack terrorist forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – its historic ally – while focusing less on the Islamic State group alarmed lawmakers this week, who decried what many of them see as America’s lackluster Middle Eastern counterterrorism strategy.

Since last year, the U.S. has conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State group, provided air cover for ground forces like the Kurdish peshmerga, and trained and equipped rebel ground forces. The Pentagon announced Tuesday it had “paused” sending forces it has trained back into Syria after confirming previous reports some of those rebels had traded their U.S.-issued gear and vehicles to extremists in exchange for safe passage through areas they controlled.

But even before that, results had been mixed.

At a hearing Tuesday in Washington, members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade questioned witnesses about the effectiveness of these tactics, particularly the so-called “train and equip” mission.

“The indigenous ground forces in Syria and Iraq are not capable of defeating ISIS,” retired U.S. Army Gen. John M. Keane told the panel. “We are not only failing, we are losing this war. Moreover, I can say with certainty this strategy will not defeat ISIS.”

When done right, training and equipping indigenous forces is considered by some military experts to be an effective strategy for stabilizing a region. In a phone interview, Ben Connable, an analyst for the RAND Corp. and a retired Marine intelligence officer, compared the U.S. training in the Middle East to the French attempts to build a militia force in South Vietnam in the 1950s.

“They were in a hurry. They wanted to get out of Indochina,” said Connable. “So what they did was rush the half-trained force into the field and they were destroyed piecemeal.”

The situation, in Connable’s view, is similar to present-day Syria.

“Just because they went through a training course does not mean they are ready for combat,” he said. “You don’t put a couple hundred newbies into the fight.”

Airstrikes prevent gains by the Islamic State group and eliminate targets, but they have done little to quell the insurgent activities tearing through Iraq and Syria.

“High-value targeting is most effective when it is combined with other counterinsurgency measures,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a witness at the Tuesday committee hearing and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Unfortunately, there are currently no boots on the ground truly capable of implementing a large-scale counterinsurgency strategy.”

America’s inability to develop a successful trained militia in Syria or maintain a concrete strategy allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to criticize the U.S. in an address to the United Nations on Monday and call for a “broad international coalition” to fight ISIS and other terrorists, such as the al-Nusra Front.

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, offered his concerns that the U.S. won’t achieve one of its principal objectives: removing Assad from power.

“It is a reality,” Keane said in response to Poe’s concerns that Russia’s new tactics will successfully prop up Assad. “I would tell Mr. Putin that I’m going to fly my airplanes where I want, when I want and you’re not going to interfere with them.”

Keane believes that the U.S. will eventually be able to remove Assad from leadership in Syria, with or without the help of the Russians. But with the Russian military now involved, it is not clear how or when that will happen.

Daniel Benjamin, another committee witness, noted Thursday that Russian military support has revitalized the Assad government.

“Whatever shared commitment there was among Western nations that Assad had to go has been essentially rendered moot,” said Benjamin, also a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. “The diplomacy now has to get going with an understanding that Assad still may go, but not soon and not on the kinds of terms that were envisioned to date.”

Complicating matters is the fact that the Syria-Russia relationship goes well beyond the military alliance.

“There is an emotional connection between the Russian military and Syria,” Connable said. “The Syrian officers married Russian women and the Russian officers married Syrian women. It’s not just a political relationship, it’s a socio-cultural relationship as well.”

Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, said America’s limited military role in Syria is giving Russia an even stronger position of power.

“The fundamental problem is this administration does not know how to cover political objectives with military strategies,” Blank said of the Obama White House, adding that Russia has “a capability to project power in well-defined strategic objectives.”

Russia, which began bombing anti-Syrian government forces Wednesday, has forced the U.S. government to reassess its strategy in the Middle East. Lawmakers and experts who participated in Tuesday’s panel appeared to agree America must revisit its counterterrorism efforts in Syria.

“I think it’s time this administration goes back to the drawing board,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn.

Published in conjunction with US News Logo


First Time on the Front Line: A Rookie’s Guide to Reporting in Ukraine


  • 12/25: A Ukrainian soldier at a checkpoint near Debaltseve. Note the tourniquet next to the radio. He is also wearing a plate carrier with no Kevlar.  (Photo Credit: James Sprankle)
    12/25: A Ukrainian soldier at a checkpoint near Debaltseve. Note the tourniquet next to the radio. He is also wearing a plate carrier with no Kevlar. (Photo Credit: James Sprankle)

KYIV, UKRAINE — For the last three months, I have been living in Ukraine and covering the war in Donbass as a photojournalist.

In 2014, after seven years in cable news in Washington, I decided to leave D.C. and start documenting the stories that I was interested in. So, I flew to Juba, South Sudan, with a writer buddy and spent the next two months working around the country. I was hooked.

Upon my return to the states, I got to work on planning a trip to Ukraine. I bought a new professional camera and body armor, and spent hours talking to friends and editors about how I was going to take this next step. I arrived in Kyiv on December 10. So far, my time in Ukraine has taught me a tremendous amount about … well, all sorts of things. It’s fair to say that I am a beginner in the conflict zone, but even though I’m new to this line of work, I think I’ve learned a few things that could prove valuable to others considering their first trip to a war zone.


Before you decide to fly to a conflict zone, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with where you are going. I started by creating Google News alerts for Ukraine, Russia, Donbass and Donetsk. I get them once a day around noon, but you can customize it to get them every five minutes if you are enthusiastic.

I also reached out to friends in the news business to see if they had any contacts in the region. Those contacts gave me guidance on who to follow on Twitter and what English-language local publications to read because I can’t speak Ukrainian or Russian.

Facebook is one of the best resources for a journalist new to an area. It seems that every country or region has a Facebook group for foreign journalists. Usually, in a private group, people post everything from carpool offers to fixer recommendations. Some are better than others. but Ukraine’s is very helpful.

Learning the history of an area is really important, as well. It makes things much clearer when you’re in the field because people love to explain why what’s happening now is because of something that happened 200 years ago.


It has been interesting to see the different types of journalists who come to Ukraine. Some will come for a few days or a few weeks, while the news is hot or if they are on an assignment. Others have apartments in Kyiv or near the front lines and have no idea when they will leave. I have actually met a few people who used to live in Moscow and, now that they’ve been in Kyiv since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan demonstrations (which ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych) have decided to make it their new base of operations.

I chose to rent a cheap apartment in Kyiv. It only costs about $10 to take the train from Kyiv to towns near the front. It can be hard to find places, but if you know anybody on the ground or are a member of a local journalist social networking group, you likely can get help.



Before you cover anything, it is prudent to get all of the official media accreditation you can. To work in East Ukraine, which the government has labeled the ATO or Anti-Terrorist Operation zone, you need to first be accredited through the state security office, the SBU. After that, the government requires anyone going into the ATO to have an ATO card.

The same goes for the pro-Russian self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR). They both require journalists to apply for press credentials before covering anything. I have yet to travel to Luhansk, but the DNR press office is located in the Regional Administration building in Donetsk city center. It’s a painless process that only takes about 15 minutes. When I was working in Donetsk in January of this year, I was stopped many times at checkpoints and would have been detained if I didn’t have my DPR press credentials.

Also keep in mind that they require a separate military press credential needed to cover any stories involving the military. Always check with the other journalists about which credentials are required for what.

Getting there:

I knew where I wanted to go, but didn’t know how to get there. My first trip to the ATO zone was a week after I arrived in Kyiv. A Ukrainian friend helped me get on a Ministry of Defense press trip to Debaltseve. Things were relatively calm at that point, and the military wanted to show off to the press how well it was maintaining a ceasefire. We traveled in armored personnel carriers and were only let out and allowed to photograph for about 30 minutes at a time. All in all, it was not a very enlightening trip, but it was a nice way to ease into it.

The second time was about a week later. I had met a British journalist who had been living in Kyiv and covering the political situation there since the Euromaidan demonstrations. We planned what were supposed to be a few day-long excursions that ended up being three weeks. Along with a Polish writer and a Ukrainian videographer, we made the 10-hour drive to the East. I would again be visiting the town of Debaltseve, but, this time, I could see everything and stop to photograph anything I’d wanted.

The last time I went out, I hitched a ride with Ukrainian volunteers who were distributing supplies and medical aid to military units all along the front line.

I now feel comfortable enough to travel on my own, but for the first few times, it was a good idea to convoy with others who were more familiar with the area. It also makes the travel cheaper.


Military and police checkpoints are a ubiquitous part of covering the conflict in Ukraine. They are usually made of concrete slabs and detritus, and manned by national border guards, the military or some iteration of police. The closer you drive = to the front lines, the more of them you’ll have to go through.

First off, they are usually nothing to worry about. Do you have your government accreditation? OK. Did you stash the opposing side’s credentials in your backpack? Cool, nothing to worry about. Your best tools for success are usually a good attitude and some cigarettes.. A little football talk in broken Russian doesn’t hurt either.

If you do get detained for some reason, don’t freak out. It’s really important to remain calm and not be combative. There are also ways you can gauge how much trouble you are in. If they let you use the toilet or offer you tea or cigarettes, I wouldn’t sweat it. There are a lot of eyes on Ukraine, and both sides consider receiving international attention for the torture or death of a foreign journalist as bad for the cause. But that’s not to say that it couldn’t happen.

Another useful thing to know about checkpoints is that they are targets. They do get shelled, and the closer they are to the front line, the more likely that is. Of course, the probability changes according to the ebb and flow of fighting, but this is something you need to keep in mind. Prepare yourself mentally for that possibility. I wear my body armor whenever I travel from one front line to the other.


There are banks everywhere, and most of those banks have ATMs. As long as you are on the Ukrainian side of the front lines, you should be able to withdraw money. Ukraine and the separatist regions are, for the most part, cash economies. You’ll be paying your fixers, drivers and roadside babushkas selling pastries in cash.

A few things to keep in mind about having enough cash: In Kyiv, this is no problem, but when you are outside of the big city ATMs will sometimes run out of cash over the weekend. Make sure you withdraw as much as you will need to get you through the weekend.

Watch the currency fluctuations! The value of the Hryvnia changes all the time. When I arrived in December, the exchange rate was about 15 Hryvnia to the dollar. At one point in February, it jumped up to about 35 to the dollar, and, now, it seems to have leveled off at around 25. Watching these rate changes can save you a considerable amount of money.

Some places you will travel to will not have a legitimate financial system. There are no working ATMs or banks in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Bringing in dollars or euros isn’t a bad idea because you will get the most bang for your buck.

Fixers and drivers:

Even a great journalist needs a fixer or driver sometimes. They are an indispensible asset on your quest for good stories and access. Fixers can be very expensive, but prices fluctuate according to demand, and you can always negotiate a rate. Drivers can be a bit cheaper and usually know all the back roads, as well as how to talk to checkpoint soldiers. Sometimes, you can use you driver as a fixer if the task is not too difficult. Again, one of the best resources for finding these people was using a journalist Facebook site.

When you’ve hired your fixer or driver, it is really important to consider his or her safety when going into a combat zone. Most do not own body armor, and their cars are their only source of income. It is important that you discuss exactly what you want to do and whether they are comfortable doing it. I have run across fixers and drivers who suddenly wanted to head back because they didn’t feel safe. These boundaries are usually determined ahead of time, but you need to respect their safety concerns and either go back or figure out another way to travel. In a way, they are your responsibility. On the other hand, I had a driver who weaved through land mines and dodged unexploded ordinance, all with a smile on his face.


Body Armor:

Purchasing body armor, also known as bulletproof vests and ballistic helmets, was one of the most important things I did before I left for Ukraine. They should be a requirement for any journalist wanting to work on the front lines. There are many different ways of obtaining armor. Sometimes, an employer will provide you with a set. There are also organizations that rent them out to journalists. I decided to purchase my own because I knew exactly what kind of set-up I wanted and that I would be using it for a long timeIt cost me around $800. If you decide to purchase some, I recommend that it not be camouflaged so that you won’t look like a fighter through a sniper’s scope.

Not all body armor is created equal. Some vests only contain a material called Kevlar, others are called plate carriers and some are plate carriers with Kevlar.

What does all this mean and what do they do?

A Kevlar vest is your typical bulletproof vest. It is tried and true, but only rated to stop less-powerful projectiles like pistol rounds and possibly shrapnel, flying bits of metal.

A plate carrier, which I wear, is a vest with a large pouch in the front and another in the back. In these pouches go either metal or composite plates that can be rated to stop more powerful projectiles like AK-47 rifle rounds or larger, faster shrapnel. The best thing to have for Ukraine – since most of the fighting involves things like mortars, artillery and rockets that produce these horrid little shards of shrapnel – is a combination vest with rifle plates on the front and back and Kevlar bits around the neck, groin and sides. It will better protect your heart from big stuff and the other important things from errant bits of flying metal. Don’t leave home without it.

Ballistic helmets are another must-have on any combat journalist’s list. Usually made of some kind of durable composite, they can protect your cranium from all kinds of nasty things. They normally cannot protect against a direct hit from heavy shrapnel or a rifle round, but they can save your life from indirect hits and smaller stuff. Slap a press sticker on it and you are set.

Medical Kits:

Another thing not to leave home without is a medical kit. This little bag, which you can usually fasten to your belt loop or backpack, should contain everything you need to treat a stomach ache or stabilize a gunshot wound. I pack antibiotics, alcohol and iodine wipes, gauze, compression bandages, stool softener, stool hardener and Celox blood coagulant.

A tourniquet is arguably the most important thing in your kit. It is intended stabilize arterial bleeding in a leg or arm by putting so much pressure on the area that blood is no longer able to flow to the wound – or anywhere else, for that matter. I carry two tourniquets. One is in my satchel bag and the other is velcroed to my body armor. It’s important that they are readily accessible and easy to detach. If you or someone with you is wounded in a leg or arm, you will need to apply pressure as soon as possible to prevent further blood loss.

I also carry a chemical blood-clotting compound called Celox. This product is touted as having the ability to clot arterial wounds and is used by militaries and medical professionals all over the world. The stuff is kind of like a glue, which you squirt into a wound with a syringe or pack as a gauze, that will clot any bleeding in the area. A New York Times medical liaison explained to me that a tourniquet cuts off all blood supply to the area, while Celox allows for blood in the undamaged veins and capillaries to keep flowing. What this means is that if you get hit, apply the Celox and stop the arterial bleeding, you might still have the ability to walk or run because the leg is receiving blood. As wonderful as this product is, it should not replace your tourniquet. Just get both.

Close to the Fight:

Journalists covering a war will more than occasionally find themselves in close proximity to explosions and gunfire. Most of my experience with combat centers around being close to mortars, artillery and rocket fire. Of course, I’m always wearing my armor. I also make a point to scope out the scene for any kind of fortification that could protect against shrapnel during a strike. But there’s really not much you can do other than get flat and take cover behind something hard.

Knowing the battle space:

I believe that it’s very important to learn as much as possible about the different weapons systems being used in a particular theatre of war. Not only will that knowledge help you write more accurate news pieces and captions, but weapons can tell a person a lot about battlefield dynamics.

For instance, some weapons, like the T-72b3, have never been operated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Learning the identifying features of this vehicle and how those features differ from a regular T-72 (which is operated by both sides) can tell a person that there is Russian Federation military equipment in Donbass (H/T Bellingcat).

Knowing the kinds of mortars, rockets systems and artillery pieces being used and a little about blast patterns can give you an idea about from where an attack may have been launched.

Each little bit of information can help a journalist make more sense of the fog of war. I suggest sites like armamentresearch.com and Bellingcat.com. Additionally, if you can get yours hands on a Jane’s Ammunition Handbook or Armour and Artillery, those are wonderfully detailed references.

Similar to many conflicts, Ukraine has its fair share of semi-autonomous volunteer paramilitary groups and militias. On the Ukrainian side, some of the armed groups like the far-right Right Sector were mobilized in the East after taking part in the street fighting of the Euromaidan demonstrations. Similar types of groups exist on the pro-Russian side, as well. Learning about who’s who and their back story can tell a journalist about what certain folks are fighting for and what or who motivates them.

Official Information:

I think the hardest thing for a journalist to deal with in Ukraine is the unreliability of information from government sources. It’s almost impossible to trust the “official” facts and figures about a particular news event. An article by Oliver Carroll writing for The Independent describes this situation perfectly. In January, mortar or artillery rounds landed near a bus stop in the Leninsky Raion (district) of Donetsk city. Donetsk People’s Republic authorities on the ground blamed the attack on pro-Ukraine partisans operating within the city. They never provided any evidence. Later, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic stated that there had been an artillery strike. But this was contradicted by an American military analyst cited by Carroll who said the blast craters were most likely associated with 120mm mortar bombs. In the end the only thing journalists could be sure of was that civilians had been killed and many of the citizens of Donetsk were furious with the Ukraine government.

Another example is the ongoing propaganda circus surrounding the July 17, 2014, shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over east Ukraine. Russia and pro-Russian separatists have blamed the Ukrainian government, while most of the international community has assigned blame to a Russian BUK anti-aircraft missile system operating in separatist held territory. Bellingcat.com has worked to decipher the conspiracy theories and fabricated claims by providing in-depth analysis of open sourced information from places like Facebook, Twitter and VKontakte (Russian Facebook) and cross-checking them using satellite imagery.

For more on James Sprankle, visit his website or follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Boston Marathon bombings leads to many unanswered questions

WASHINGTON—After the Boston Marathon bombings, legislators and the public have questioned how officials handled the attacks and whether or not it could have been prevented.

“My fear is that the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee at the first public Congressional hearing on the terrorist attack.

“We learned over a decade ago, the danger in failing to connect the dots. The cornerstone of the 9/11 Commission Report was that agencies had stove-piped and intelligence, which prevented us from seeing potential terrorist plots,” McCaul said.

In the 9/11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies had information regarding the hijackers prior to the attacks, yet the agencies weren’t communicating with one another.  From these events, the Department of Homeland Security was created, along with other government agencies, and the U.S. took stronger measurements to prevent future terrorism acts.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and brother, Dzhokhar, 19, carried out the attack at the Boston Marathon.  It’s been reported that Russian authorities notified the CIA and FBI, on separate accounts, about Tamerlan possibly becoming radicalized and seeking more fuel from groups in Dagestan, part of the North Caucasus of Russia and home of Islamist militants.

Tamerlan was put on the U.S. Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database in late 2011, which keeps a list of all terrorism suspects and has reached 875,000 names. It’s maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center. The information on the list is available to all counterterrorism professionals throughout the Intelligence Community, including the Department of Defense, according to a description on its website.

But according to an LA Times article, this database doesn’t serve as a watch list.

“The database is so large and the records can be so vague that there often is little a law enforcement agency is willing or able to do in response to a TIDE match,” wrote the author. Therefore, “too vague to flag Boston suspect.”

This year, the Government Accountability Office, which serves as a watchdog, found that the sharing and managing of terrorism-related information between government agencies is a “high risk.” The GAO updates this high-risk list every two years with programs that need continued attention “due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation.” The report found that the federal government is working to better the sharing of information but said it has  “not yet estimated and planned for the resources needed” to tackle this issue.

Michael Weiser, who studied international relations and Middle East politics at Tel-Aviv University and California State University said communication across all government agencies is important, but isn’t sure if the Boston attacks could have been prevented.

“In this case it might have increased the chance of detection, but I don’t know it if would have been decisive,” Weiser said.

The problem, he said, is many think of terrorism threats coming from a specific region.

“The radicalized Islamist movement is not necessarily isolated to a localized area,” Weiser said, adding that it could come from anywhere from the Philippines to Yemen to America. But cautioned that he does not know whether or not federal agencies examined Tamerlan with this in mind.

“The idea is to think globally. Jihadism is a global movement,” he said.

With this, some believe the focus should now be on homegrown terrorism and also cyber-radicalization, like extremists who post videos on YouTube that can reach millions across the world. Even President Barack Obama has said he believes the brothers acted alone in the attacks.

“One of the dangers that we now face are self-radicalized individuals who are already here in the United States,” Obama said at a news conference.

A New York Times article reports that the “Tsarnaev brothers appear to have been radicalized and instructed in explosives not at a training camp but at home on the Internet.” The author writes that Dzhokhar told investigators that he and his brother followed manuals and “do-it-yourself articles” on how to carry out attacks in the U.S. without having to go abroad.

With this being an ongoing investigation, there will be many more details revealed as time comes.  But, I will have to agree with Weiser that we, as a nation, have to start looking at these events as a “global threat” rather than coming from one specific region or area. We must also examine how agencies can control the growing trend of cyber-radicalization.

Why the U.S. outspends the world on defense

WASHINGTON – Evan Siff comes from a military family. His great grandfather was a general, his grandfather was in the navy and so was his father. For Siff, staying close to that tradition was second nature.

But, he chose the academic route and pursued an MA in International Relations at Durham University in England. In his dissertation, he examined NATO as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and how that relates to US military spending.

If you ask him what he learned as a result of the degree, his answer will be unorthodox.

“When I was writing my thesis, I really examined why NATO didn’t go away. The fall of the USSR made it obsolete,” Siff said. “I found out some things that didn’t help my outlook on things at all…I had gotten pretty cynical. The more you study, you more you will realize how much lobbyists actually determine legislation in the U.S.”

And while most of his fellow-classmates moved into government jobs, Siff chose to work in public relations at Topaz Partners, a Boston-area technology PR firm, because he was disappointed in how “political” the military had become, especially when the U.S. is pouring millions and billions of dollars into two wars that seem too expensive. (Continued below graphic)

In U.S. Dollars. Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
Graphic by Catherine Ngai

The current U.S. defense budget proposal of $708 billion for fiscal 2011, a 6.7 percent increase from the year prior of $663.8 billion. According to the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute, this number surpasses defense spending in the next 10 countries combined. Some question why this number is so big and whether reducing it would help lower the nation’s budget deficit.

“The US military is the pillar upon which the stability and safety of the international system rests,” said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Arlington, VA, in an interview. “It’s not in our interests to see the Middle East exploding into war or to see South Korea overrun by North Korea.”

Goure says that although the U.S. military budget is large, it acts as an international defense mechanism. He argues that the U.S. uses its military to keep peace internationally.

He also points out that if the entire defense budget were cut to zero, it would further exacerbate the debt situation instead of alleviating it. He reasons that eliminating the defense budget would mean firing the nearly 1.4 million men and women on active duty and the another 1 million in the Reserves and the National Guard. This would mean increasing the already high unemployment rate.

Georgian NATO membership in permanent holding pattern?

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili meets with Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. and Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md. of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe U.S. Helsinki Commission May 14 on Capitol Hill.
Justine Jablonska/MEDILL

WASHINGTON – When Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili attended the Nuclear Summit in Washington DC in April, there’s a few things he didn’t do. He didn’t meet with President Barack Obama or Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Saakashvili also didn’t discuss Georgia’s membership in NATO with members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, with whom he met on Capitol Hill.

Georgia wants to be in NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – an intergovernmental military alliance whose member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party.

NATO has said that it wants Georgia to be in NATO. It’s even released a statement proclaiming that Georgia will be in NATO.

But although both sides agree, that’s not enough – and, according to Aaron Linderman, the Florence and Bookman Peters Excellence Fellow at Texas A&M University, NATO membership may be on indefinite hold for Georgia for numerous reasons.

Linderman says that two very important considerations exist for Georgian membership in NATO.

Will that membership be enough to “deter aggression against Georgia, or will we actually have to fight to protect it?” Linderman asks. He’s not sure, and says that NATO’s commitment to Article 5 regarding the Baltic republics “in the face of open aggression is not 100% certain.”

The mutual defense provision of NATO’s charter has never truly been tested, Linderman says. And the United States would like to keep it that way: “Deterrence is relatively cheap,” Linderman says. “Actually driving the Russians out of Estonia or Poland would be a real mess.”

Mark Chodakiewicz of the Institute of World Politics agrees. “I doubt that we would back Georgia with U.S. troops on the ground if the Russian Federation invaded once again,” he says.

Aggression against Georgia is one consideration, while aggression from Georgia is another: What happens if, once awarded NATO membership, Georgia behaves in a way that “invite[s] intervention from Russia?” asks Linderman.

Some have said that that’s exactly what happened during the 2008 Georgia-Russian conflict, but Linderman says he thinks Saakhashvili’s actions were justified. “He was trying to assert sovereignty over his own territory,” he says, while Russia was waiting for an excuse.

“Intercepted phone messages from the Roki Tunnel suggest that Russian troops were in motion even before the Georgians began their attack on the South Ossetian separatists,” Linderman says.

Those Russian troops that remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a huge obstacle in the way of NATO membership for Georgia, according to Linderman, since some of Georgia’s territory is currently under foreign – read: Russian – occupation. If Georgia is admitted to NATO, then what does NATO do with those Russian forces? Linderman asks.

Thus, as long as those Russian troops remain in Georgia, Linderman says, “it is unlikely that membership will move forward.”

What, then, can move that membership forward?

Russian troops leaving Georgia, says Linderman – but that probably won’t happen.

“Having a few thousand troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a relatively cheap way for Russia to prove that it still controls its neighborhood and can block NATO expansion at will,” Linderman says.

Another way would be “some kind of recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” meaning a renunciation of Georgian sovereignty, he says. That move would anger Georgians and affirm Russian aggression in the region – but then Georgia would fully possess the territory it claims, says Linderman, and thus give Georgia a fresh start at a NATO guarantee.

Linderman doesn’t think either of these options will happen anytime soon: “I think we have to conclude that Georgian NATO membership is on ice indefinitely.”

Beyond if Georgia will obtain NATO membership is the question of why it wants it, Linderman says. Is it because Georgia wants assistance, or a guarantee of assistance? Is Georgia “ideologically committed to democracy, civilian control of the military, and independent media and the other things for which NATO members stand?”

According to Chodakiewicz, Georgia is continuing to show “some sophistication in its propaganda, stressing the human right’s side of the issue, which flies very well in the West.”

Linderman says that while Georgia’s record isn’t perfect, it does have a real commitment to democratic values. Commitment alone isn’t enough, however: “Saakashvili and other Georgian leaders have to realize that it is not enough to have a pretty good democracy,” Linderman says. “They need to work tirelessly to ensure the rule of law and democratic governance.”

Although Saakhashvili didn’t meet with Obama or Medvedev during his Washington DC trip, he did meet with U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who thanked Saakhashvili for Georgia’s troop contribution to Afghanistan. Georgia also has troops in Iraq, for a total of 3,000 troops fighting alongside U.S. troops. According to Richard Holbrooke, Special U.S. Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Georgia appears to have the highest per capita troop contribution of any country in the world.