U.S. Launches New Airfield in Georgia: Tighter U.S.-Georgian Military Relations?
The United States (U.S.) plans to construct an airfield in Georgia’s Vaziani military base, according to an announcement following a meeting between Georgia’s Defense Minister Levan Izoria and head of U.S. Transportation Command General Stephen Lyons.
The airfield is the latest development in a deepening U.S.-Georgian strategic partnership. Last February, U.S. European Command launched the Georgian Defense Readiness Program (GDRP) which aims to increase Georgia’s defense capabilities, primarily by supporting training for the Georgian infantry. Specifically, nine Georgian Armed Forces battalions will be manned, equipped, and trained with the assistance of U.S. European Command instructors through 2021. The first battalion trained under the GDRP graduated in July.
Both the GDRP and the airfield are bilateral initiatives between the U.S. and Georgia, but all parties involved clearly value the relationship in the context of Georgia’s NATO aspirations. Minister Izoria expressed hope that the airfield could function as a NATO-Georgia Readiness Center. Meanwhile, the U.S. has consistently expressed support for Georgian NATO membership and reaffirmed that support at the GDRP launch.
Russian media weighed in with a heavy exaggeration, calling the airfield a NATO pre-strike staging base. The notion that NATO is constructing military bases in Georgia has made frequent appearances in Russian disinformation campaigns. In reality, NATO has helped open two training facilities Krtsanisi and Sakchere but repeatedly emphasizes that these facilities are for training only, and do not constitute bases. NATO Commander Jens Stoltenberg specifically noted that the Krtsanisi center was “not directed against anybody” at its launch in 2015.
The Vaziani airfield is slightly different, in that it is not solely a training center and is designed to allow Georgia to host NATO member states. Though Georgia has often contributed units to NATO operations, hosting would be a new development in relations—one that Russia may find more troubling since it would position NATO forces just outside Russia’s borders. NATO has so far remained silent on whether it intends to use the airfield, perhaps to avoid problems with Russia. The Russian government has also avoided commenting on developments in Vaziani, though the U.S.’ support for improving the training facility located there prompted Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin to label it a “cause for concern for us and our neighbors in Abkhazia and South Ossetia” in February.
However, Minister Karasin went on to note that analysis should not “run ahead of time” regarding Georgia’s NATO membership. The same principle is true regarding Vaziani airfield today. Despite what Georgia and the U.S. may be hoping, the base has no connection to NATO, and there is nothing to suggest that will change. Furthermore, no matter how close Georgia’s military integrates itself with the western alliance, full membership is extremely unlikely while Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain under Russian control.
Photo: Georgian PM Mamuka Bakhtadze met with US General Steve Lyons at the administration building of the government of Georgia. (c) Prime Minister’s press office.