As Russia and Iran Strengthen Ties, U.S. Should Support Key Ally Georgia

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As the US is engaged in pre-election navel-gazing, Russia is not taking a summer nap. The Kremlin never sleeps, and especially not in August, and not during the Olympic season. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 coincided with the Russia-Georgian conflict, and the Ukrainian crisis developed during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

President Vladimir Putin is reformatting the strategic power balance in Eurasia. Recreating of the USSR 2.0 is underway both domestically and externally. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the essence of Putin's doctrine is Russia wins - the West loses.

On August 8, Putin attended an historical meeting in Baku with his counterparts from Iran and Azerbaijan, Hassan Rouhani and Ilham Aliyev, to discuss the North-South corridor - a rail line and highways that would link the three countries and connect them to a transport network from India to Europe via the Caucasus.

This north-south axis would neutralize the East-West economic corridor long supported by the West.

Coordinating Russia-Iranian political and security interests would cause power shifts in the Caucasus and may have profound implications for the U.S. and Western interests, especially with regards to Armenia and the Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, and the secessionist, de-facto Russian-occupied South Ossetia (Samachablo), and Abkhazia. Both enclaves legally belong to Georgia.

In the light of such developments, and especially as a new Administration will arrive to Washington soon, the U.S. should not disengage from the strategic region, which is the nexus of Europe and Asia. It connects the Atlantic space to Central Asia, and Eastern Europe to Iran and the Gulf.

South Caucasus is a pivotal region connecting the Atlantic Ocean and its Black Sea and the Mediterranean, to the land-locked Caspian Sea and Central Asia. It is the western bridgehead of the Silk Road -- and therefore of strategic and economic interests to the U.S. and the EU.

Therefore, the U.S. should keep strong ties to Georgia, its staunch ally and the region's most pro-Western country. Tbilisi has been a loyal and significant contributor the US led mission in Iraq and to NATO efforts in Afghanistan.

With 861 soldiers, Georgia, a country of 4.3 million, is the third largest troop contributor to the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, after the United States (7,000 troops) and Germany (980 troops).

The country is staunchly committed to democracy under the current Georgian Dream coalition, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, and President Giorgi Margvelashvili. It aspires to join the E.U. and NATO despite staunch Russian opposition.

Georgia has been the victim of Russian aggression over the past three decades. This August 8, Georgians commemorated the anniversary of the Russian invasion in 2008. 170 Georgian servicemen, 14 policemen, and 228 civilians were killed and 1,747 wounded. Whilst Russian troops were removed after Europe-brokered armistice, Russia's recognition of independence and cooperation with South Ossetia and Abkhazia has posed severe problems for Georgia in terms of transportation, energy and state sovereignty, and continues to pose humanitarian problems as ethnic Georgians were cleansed out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Prime Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, announced on August 8 that peaceful reunification with the autonomous regions is a major priority to the country. Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decried the de-facto annexation.

Russia has integrated Abkhazia into its military and economic systems, and continues its illegal occupation. The strengthening of Russian-Iranian writ in the South Caucasus may affect Georgia and its sovereignty.

Russia has also repeatedly taken economic steps against Georgia. In 2006, it banned all imports from Georgia over a Russian intelligence debacle. The embargo hurt the Georgian economy and was not lifted until 2012, when Georgia Dream came to power.

In 2014, Moscow cancelled the free trade agreement and punished Georgia for joining the Western economic sanctions in the aftermath of Russian annexation of the Crimea. Last year, Russia conducted military maneuvers in North Ossetia, in what appeared to be pressure on Georgia to comply with Russian demands to use Georgian territory for economic and military resupply of Armenia over sovereign Georgian territory.

In the light of the Russian hostility since 2008, and the current Russian strategic behavior, Georgia is working hard towards NATO membership. However, its efforts to strengthen its defense capabilities have not been sufficiently supported by Washington.

On July 8, at the NATO Warsaw summit members agreed on "new steps" to strengthen country's defense, including areas such as air defense and surveillance, training, education and strategic communication. Furthermore Georgia signed a contract with a French missile manufacturer MBDA on July 10 to buy a state-of-the-art defense system.

Last month the country signed another deal with Thales Raytheon Systems, a producer of ground-based surveillance radars and air defense command and control systems, though details of the contracts are being retained for security reasons. According to Defense Ministry, the main goals were to guarantee Georgia's air defense and bringing it up to the level of NATO systems.

As the wheels turn in Washington, our ally Georgia continues to require our friendship and assistance. The U.S. should cherish the commitments of Georgia to democracy, including the two open and transparent parliamentary elections in 2012 and 2016.

Moving forward, we should expand the relations, and support the Georgian bids to join NATO and the EU. Georgia is too important to fail.

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