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The Mountains are Neutral

By Timothy Ogden
Tuesday, October 13
The recent death of another Georgian soldier in Afghanistan will doubtless cause some to wonder (perhaps not for the first time) what Georgian troops have been fighting and dying for since the previous government committed more military forces to the ISAF [International Security Assistance Forces] mission in 2009. A recent article in Georgian Journal, authored by Mark Mullen, raised the issue once again.

It is perfectly understandable why some Georgian people feel betrayed by NATO; the worthiness of the Afghan war has been called into question even within nations which have been directly affected by terrorism, hence it is not difficult to comprehend why the deployment of Georgian troops has been considered controversial at times. Mr Mullen writes that 'there are two possible uses for Georgia's military. The first would be to fight a war with an external threat or by its existence, to deter an external threat from invading Georgia...the other possibility is to use the Army and Ministry of Defense [sic] as a policy instrument for Georgia to get closer to Euro-Atlantic security structures, or specifically, to NATO'.

This is all true enough, though it should be noted that neither of these scenarios are possibilities; Georgia's Army has already been used to defend Georgian soil against an external aggressor, and the government makes no secret of the fact that the main purpose behind deploying Georgian troops to Afghanistan was (and is) to increase Georgia-NATO interoperability. Mr Mullen then writes that imminent Georgian inclusion into NATO is unlikely, which is hardly an unreasonable opinion given the alliance's consistent reluctance to grant Georgia membership.

However, Mr Mullen then suggests a third way: that Georgia could adopt a politically neutral position and disband its armed forces, since any fight against Russia would surely be hopeless.

Advocating such an opinion suggests that Mr Mullen has never held any military rank. A conventional battle against Russia is far from hopeless; since 2008, Georgia's re-trained soldiers have displayed professionalism equal to that of most NATO armies on operations, and are fully capable of engaging enemy infantry, tanks and even aircraft (indeed, despite popular belief, Georgia was successful in bringing down Russian aircraft in 2008). Anyone with military experience would also be aware of the difficulty in mounting an assault against Tbilisi. As the Taliban have shown since 2001, mountains negate many of the advantages rendered by superior technology, vehicles or air power, and can hide all manner of threats, from explosive ambushes to special forces teams.

It is generally accepted that Russia's advance into Georgian territory in 2008 was unexpected by President Saakashvili, who had counted on his much-publicised friendship with the United States' government to protect Georgia from any Russian retaliation for the advance into Tskinvali. His optimism was clearly shown to be misguided, when America insisted on the ceasefire agreement being brokered by the European Union. However, it should be noted that Russia did not use overwhelming force in attacking Georgia; the myth of Russia making use of its hordes of infantry and armies of tanks is, in fact, just a myth. Russia sent a punitive expedition, not an invading army - whether this was done to dissuade any other former Soviet republics from pursuing American friendship, or to warn America that its investments in Eastern Europe are at risk, or to try and topple the Saakashvili administration are now, of course, all rather moot points.

The logic behind disbanding the armed forces is, according to Mr Mullen, that Georgia could never again be blamed for starting any conflict. The Russian insistence that Georgian forces had fired on their peacekeepers in South Ossetia first and had invaded Georgian territory simply to defend their citizens in Tskinvali was a line happily swallowed by the West, since reluctantly blaming Georgia for the conflict meant nothing needed to be done to curb Moscow's aggression. Disarming Georgia would prevent Russia from attempting to blame Tbilisi from starting any conflict whatsoever, but recent events in Ukraine strongly suggest that the Kremlin no longer needs to rely on weak excuses to justify military action. Few attempts have been made to hide the presence of Russian regulars in Ukraine.

Pacifist neutrality has little historical evidence being at all effective. Successfully neutral nations have, in fact, been highly militarised; though Switzerland and Sweden remained untouched during the Second World War, this was only due to the obvious difficulties which would be faced in mounting an attack against either, due to their terrain and available military forces (though Adolf Hitler is recorded as having confided to Benito Mussolini that he intended to eventually occupy Switzerland). Doubtless neutrality is a fine and noble notion, but righteous indignation would not be of much use for the people of Georgia if their homeland was occupied without a shot being fired.

With or without NATO membership, it is through the expansion - and not the reduction - of Georgia's Armed Forces through which national security will be bolstered. Improved air defence capabilities are already being implemented with help from the French, and the Georgian Ministry of Defence has also recently expressed the desire to abolish conscription and establish a capable and professional Reserve force. Fashionable (and naive) pacifism does not, mercifully, seem to be influencing the authorities just yet.