Georgia Deepens Cooperation with Israel through Defense Deal
Georgia’s Ministry of Defense signed two agreements with Israeli defense companies on September 11, indicating warming ties between the two countries after Israel previously banned drone sales to Georgia during the 2008 war with Russia.
Both agreements are designed to strengthen and modernize Georgia’s air defense systems. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems will collaborate with the Georgian Defense Forces (GDF) to bring anti-air assets up to international standards and provide training for Georgian personnel. Elbit Systems will be responsible for upgrades to the Georgian Defense Forces’ electronic systems.
The two contracts are designed to help the airplane and helicopter fleets of the Georgian Defense Forces meet NATO standards. In addition to bringing the technological capacity of the GDF up to NATO standards, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems will retrain GDF personnel to properly utilize the new weapons systems. Earlier this summer, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced the government’s plan to modernize air defense systems, as well as modernize all weaponry to NATO standards. The contract with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is estimated to be worth about $12 million.
Israel has actively worked to develop a presence in the South Caucasus region since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Israel and Georgia have diversified their fields of cooperation and have pursued developments in the high-tech industry, cybersecurity, and agricultural sectors. Direct investment from Israel into Georgia is estimated to be $500 million, and direct trade is valued at about $20 million, but this figure is growing.
The burgeoning partnership between Israel and Georgia is the logical step in an Israeli foreign policy designed to grow its international support. Israel already has a diplomatic foothold in the Southern Caucasus in the form of Azerbaijan, which formed what would be a close relationship with the Jewish State in 1992. Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country, also has the largest Jewish population in the Caucasus. Israel has praised Azerbaijan for its tolerance of other cultures and religions. Not only is Azerbaijan a close partner with Israel for peace, but Azerbaijan is the first Muslim-majority state to have such strong and friendly ties with Israel.
Israel also benefits from Azerbaijan’s reliable oil supplies and its independent foreign policy. Because of Iranian influence in Azerbaijan (Iran has a large ethnic Azeri population), Azerbaijan has grown closer to Israel, particularly in the area of security. And while Azerbaijan has not yet opened an embassy in Israel, this has not stopped high-level visitsbetween the countries and close security co-operation (including the not-so-secret use of Azerbaijani airfields). In a 2018 visit to Baku, former National Security Council Chairman John Bolton lauded Azerbaijan’s efforts to “stop Iran’s malign behavior throughout the region, including its support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
Elsewhere in the South Caucasus, relations between Israel and Armenia have developed more slowly, largely because of Armenia’s strong relationship with Iran. Armenia is significantly isolated because its borders with Turkey to the west and Azerbaijan to the east remain closed. Armenia shares a comprehensive diplomatic, trade, and defense relationship with Iran. Armenia has repeatedly requested that Israel stop its weapons exports to Azerbaijan, but Israel notes that Armenia purchases weapons from Iran, which directly endangers Israel. As a result, Israel’s relations with Armenia remain cordial, but much weaker than with Georgia and Azerbaijan.
In light of Israel establishing relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, it is clear that Israel is making diplomatic efforts to strengthen its position against Iran. The United States has determined that the South Caucasus region is strategically important to compliment its pursuit of the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran. The improvements to Georgia’s Defense Forces, therefore, have implications for security both inside and outside the South Caucasus region.