This Friday, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine will sign association agreements with the European Union, an undeniably important step for countries trying to escape Russia's shadow. Such agreements will not automatically shield countries in Central and Eastern Europe from future Russian aggression. In fact, ever the tactician, Vladimir Putin has already intensified pressure as global attention turns away from the region.
Western leaders face a steep challenge as they manage competing foreign policy interests: how best to leverage their limited resources to reduce the number of conceivable tactical options at Putin's disposal to destabilize the region and endanger Western interests.
It is tempting but wrong to entirely focus resources and attention on the conflict in Ukraine. A wiser and more easily achievable bet is to secure a strong liberal democracy in Georgia.
In Ukraine, despite prudent early actions and statements by President Petro Poroshenko, foreign-funded unrest in the Donbas and over 20 years of misrule will not be solved quickly via foreign assistance. The West should still bolster Ukraine's new government where it can, but ultimately Russia has the capacity to greatly diminish the impact of any Western assistance. Strong transparent institutions, improved economic conditions, and an enhanced national defense are the conditions necessary for creating a strong state capable of withstanding outside pressure. Only Ukrainians will create that.
Georgia has already started down the path toward creating a strong state capable of withstanding outside pressure, making it a more strategic candidate for Western support. It has demonstrated strong democratic credentials with its orderly constitutional transfer of power in 2013, and has a populace, government and increasingly large professional society genuinely committed to Euro-Atlantic integration. The West can easily support Georgia by continuing and increasing sensible economic, security and civil society cooperation and assistance programs.
Economically, the association agreement is a significant step that will eventually make Georgia more competitive and lead to predicted growth of 4.3 percent per year. Unsurprisingly, Russia has warned there will be consequences for signing the association agreement. Worryingly for Tbilisi, the Kremlin is in a position to inflict meaningful economic pain, having undone much of Georgia's economic diversification following the 2008 war.
The EU must therefore reinforce its signature by forcefully responding with unambiguous support to any economic pressure by Russia, starting by declaring Georgia an official candidate for EU membership. This would send a strong message to Russia and encourage other Eastern Partnership countries. As Georgia completes EU accession criteria, it would further transform its economy and implement critical judicial and administrative reforms that will ensure its future as a vibrant democracy.
Less symbolic but equally important EU support would include accelerating the EU-Georgia Visa Liberalization Action Plan and boosting the €30 million support package accompanying the implementation of the association agreement. Meanwhile, the United States can also increase economic support by replacing its current bilateral investment treaty with a genuine free trade agreement and increasing the amount of direct U.S. assistance for educational programs.
The most valuable assistance America can provide is via increased security cooperation and assistance. While joint annual exercises already take place, there is scope for more cooperation and more sales of needed arms.
Georgian security would also be bolstered if France canceled its planned sale of two Mistral-class assault ships to Russia. This controversial deal would help the Kremlin project power in the Black Sea and, according to Russian naval chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, the ships could have won the 2008 war with Georgia "in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours." A sensible proposal remains for NATO to instead buy the ships and use them as a shared asset.
NATO could also support Georgia by heeding Defense Minister Irakli Alasania's suggestion to deploy defensive assets in the country. Placing NATO air defense and anti-armor technology in Georgia could provide practical benefits to a level that may deter Russian aggression. Moreover, such a deployment would symbolize the Alliance standing with its dedicated partners. Most importantly, by the NATO summit in September, the alliance should not simply promise deeper integration, but finally offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan despite the concerns raised by some members in recent weeks.
More can also be done to assist Georgia's civil society reforms and ensure its Western trajectory. Increasing the presence of USAID projects and Radio Free Europe-type programming would ensure a crucial foothold for Western news and information in English. This would begin to counter the Kremlin's dominant levels of regional propaganda that have created mass disinformation. Additionally, in time different civil society projects could work to resolve international human rights concerns connected to homophobia and injustice within Georgian society.
Despite some justifiable concerns about the evolution of Georgian society, the country's current orientation is patently clear and its institutions are steadily evolving. Of course, though Georgians believe their future lies with the West, Vladimir Putin has shown a tendency to harass unprotected neighbors trying to align with the United States and Europe. The West cannot afford to pass up this ideal opportunity to prevent future Russian aggression, but instead assist Georgian society in areas that combat the new and old styles of Russian war.
Ian Hansen is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council. He has worked and lived in Poland, Georgia, and Ukraine. You can follow him on Twitter @CEE_theworld.