Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine prompted a rapid and potentially lasting shift in sourcing Europe’s natural gas. While the Russian role in European markets, energy mixes, and infrastructure continues to diminish, gas producers in the South Caucasus, Caspian basin, and beyond are moving in to fill the gap; and they are utilizing various new Black Sea transit corridors and initiatives to deliver their volumes. For the sake of safeguarding these transatlantic — and thus also American — security interests, it is becoming increasingly imperative that the United States better anchor itself economically, politically, and militarily in the eastern Black Sea region.
The stakes are high. The Black Sea’s littoral states south and west of Russia are pumping or transporting non-Russian gas to European markets, alleviating the threat of energy coercion by the Kremlin. Last October, world grain and corn markets were roiled as the Russian navy prevented the passage of Ukrainian vessels through the Turkish Straits, generating or exacerbating food crises in around 50 countries that, collectively, depend on Ukrainian and Russian wheat for 30% of their cereal imports. Militarily, Russia’s regional power projection relies in part on long-range cruise missiles and costal weapons systems that threaten freedom of navigation, severely constrain new gas exploration and extraction, and leave three North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies exposed to Moscow’s intimidation tactics.
Georgia as central regional interconnector
Washington needs a reliable, steadfast regional ally in the eastern Black Sea. Georgia’s geography and infrastructure position it as the region’s primary interconnector for energy, trade, and telecommunication throughout the South Caucasus and with neighboring regions. These assets make Georgia a particularly valuable potential ally that ought to be better ensconced into the transatlantic community. Georgia has the potential to be recognized, along with U.S. allies Israel, Romania, Poland, South Korea, and Taiwan, as a uniquely reliable partner in a troubled region of strategic consequence. Yet to achieve this positive prospect, two things need to happen. First, Georgia’s elites must leave domestic political rivalries at the water’s edge and get their country back on a democratic track. Second, the U.S. and its European allies will need to reciprocate by doubling down on Georgia’s defense, economic development, and democratic consolidation.
Theoretically, the pump is primed. With its history steeped in Western civilization and traditions, the majority of Georgians continue to look toward Europe and the Atlantic for their country’s future. Externally, Georgia is more-than-ever poised to take on its hopeful role as a genuinely transatlantic country. NATO endorsed “tailored and practical support” for Georgia at the Madrid Summit in 2022. While short of a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the summit declaration together with the Substantial Georgia-NATO Package provide the runway to bring the country closer to finally joining the Alliance. EU membership is under consideration as well, provided that the current Georgia Dream coalition government rein in its corrupt business interests and all parties dial down the toxic partisanship that corrodes Georgia’s hopeful democratic consolidation.
A troubled prospective ally
Regrettably, Tbilisi’s current government remains non-committal (at best) or even deceitful (at worst) when it comes to planting the Georgian flag firmly in the West. Former Georgian Dream chair and one-time Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvilli’s business links to Russia are widely documented. As the party’s multi-billionaire financier, Georgia’s ruling coalition is in his pocket, as well as state institutions. What is less clear is whether Ivanishvili is wholly beholden to the Kremlin. Georgia’s transatlantic trajectory turns on the answer.
Signs emanating lately from Tbilisi fail to inspire confidence that Georgia Dream can slough off its pro-Moscow affinities. The parliament’s recent ham-fisted efforts to ostensibly oversee foreign money in its political and civic space was justifiably perceived as a redux of Russia’s muzzling anti-foreign agents law. As if this wasn’t disincentive enough for Brussels: In a move of astoundingly absurdist political theater, two months ago, Georgia Dream withdrew its membership from the Party of European Socialists (PES), the second-largest bloc in the European Parliament. The reason? PES criticism of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s keynote address at the far-right Conservative Political Action Conference’s (CPAC) May meeting in Hungary. Given the pro-Kremlin affinities of CPAC-endorsed U.S. House Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, PES has strong cause to protest. While some may try to soft pedal such behavior, these are not mere slights. Ivanishvili and his political dependents are hedging their bets, if not consciously steering the country eastward.
In the latter half of the 20th century, various U.S. administrations successfully expanded America’s global reach through concentrated political, economic, and military investment in the newly formed states of Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, and, as the century drew to a close, eventual NATO members Poland and Romania. Washington’s investments paid off, earning stable and dependable allies in their respective hot spots.
These countries possess basic characteristics in common with one another and, notably, with Georgia: They are located in crucial strategic nodes. Their landmasses are small or modest. As nation-states, they are largely homogeneous, with well-developed senses of national identity. Their democracies and free markets are consolidated, with labor forces that boast high education rates, entrepreneurial spirit, and industriousness. Each has demonstrated a seriousness with regard to self-defense and military prowess.
Moreover, the Georgian economy is open for business and growing. The country’s GDP was up 9.7% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2022. This marks the seventh quarter of expansion — progress indicative of Georgia’s high ranking in the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index. In the energy sector, Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine has reoriented international focus toward Georgia’s capacity as a regional interconnector. Georgia is a key link in the so-called Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), a network of transcontinental pipelines that carry offshore Caspian gas westward to Turkey and Southeastern Europe. Namely, Georgia hosts a section of the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP), which links directly to the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) across Turkey to deliver Azerbaijani gas to the Turkish market and, onward, to Southeastern European consumers. The demand for non-Russian gas is growing. In 2022, 11.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Azerbaijani gas made it Europe via the SGC, a 28% increase over the previous year. To meet market demand on the European continent, TANAP’s capacity is set to double to 32 bcm in 2023, all of which would need to transit Georgia.
This small but critical country’s interconnectivity role extends beyond energy pipelines. The Caucasian Cable System is the sole communications cable linking Georgia and Azerbaijan to Europe, making it infrastructure of geostrategic significance. Relatedly, the EU is moving on plans to construct a new subsea internet cable for the South Caucasus via Georgia in order to reduce regional reliance on Russia’s terrestrial fiber-optic connectivity. An undersea electricity cable from the South Caucasus to Europe is also in the offing. Logistically, Georgia’s Poti Sea Port opened a new terminal earlier this year. Should European gas demand continue to rise, this port will further serve as the maritime transit point for liquified natural gas (LNG) via a renewed effort to realize the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romania Interconnector (AGRI).
A critical mass of factors is coalescing in Georgia that should prime long-term U.S. engagement with Tbilisi. What’s missing is the political glue.
Necessary steps forward
For starters, Georgia’s governing coalition needs to demonstrate its democratic commitments clearly and firmly. Georgian political, business, and religious elites need to recognize that the internecine, winner-takes-all approach to governance they have been pursuing to date is the perfect recipe for Russia’s malign interventions. Helpful would be the termination of the politically motivated incarceration of former President Mikheil Saakashvili. And the current government can further set Georgia on a democratic footing by rolling back the encroachments on its decreasingly independent judiciary. The passage of “de-oligarchization” laws, in line with the Venice Commission’s legal opinion, would be another a smart move. Whereas Georgia’s failure on these fronts will douse the confidence required of Western — as well as East Asian — investors and companies.
On the other hand, the U.S. and democratic Europe should encourage Georgia to continue with its reforms and enforce domestic anti-corruption laws by, in return, proactively promoting private investment in Georgian infrastructure and industry. The U.S. Development Finance Corporation, in particular, could take a greater role because of its ability to incentivize private sector-led partnerships. Donor states should initiate and support vocational education programs to aid the country’s gradual shift away from the dominant agricultural sector, which currently employs 40% of the Georgian labor force. Washington should boost training opportunities and joint exercises between NATO and Georgia’s Armed Forces — not just bilateral or minilateral exercises with individual member states, as is most common. Diplomatically, the U.S. and allies worldwide need to renew their vociferous recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The U.S. Senate’s Black Sea Security Act, introduced in December 2022, is an excellent call to action. Starting there, the U.S. has the chance to one day approach the Black Sea as it does the Eastern Mediterranean or the Pacific Rim, with the knowledge that a solid friend is there in our corner. Through signaling such as this, the time is ripe for Tbilisi’s government to seize the moment and set Georgia on a pro-Euro-Atlantic path that holds the real promise of defensible sovereignty and economic prosperity. Will it?
Richard Kraemer is a is a Non-Resident Scholar for MEI’s Black Sea Program. He is also President of the U.S.-Europe Alliance and formerly a senior program officer for Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Photo by Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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