March 29, 2021 - 7:00am

For over fifteen years, Georgia has contributed to troops to NATO operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, this country of just 3.7 million people sent more of its own soldiers than many NATO members, losing 32 troops with another 280 wounded.

Yet membership of NATO is consistently denied, and Georgia is instead granted rewards such as ‘the NATO-Georgia Substantial Package’, a deal which gave the country boxes of used American M4 rifles, the honour of hosting NATO exercises twice per year of 3,000 personnel (of whom only 120 are Georgians), and the opportunity to send limited numbers of Georgian troops to train on Western military bases.

In short, Georgia has paid the levy of blood and received very little from the West in return.

Although Georgia is small in size, it is of immense strategic importance. The South Caucasus are a major gateway between Europe and Asia. Georgia is also home to the only regional oil and gas pipelines not under Iranian or Russian control.

Other nations in the area have picked drastically different foreign: Armenia remains a Russian client state and Azerbaijan is increasingly tied to Turkey. This ought to concern Brussels, London and Washington — despite being a NATO member, Turkey’s days of even ostensible friendship with the West appear to be over.

If Georgia were to granted membership in NATO, however, Turkey’s strategic importance would wane – to begin with, the RAF and US Air Force assets stationed at Incirlik Air Force base could be moved within Georgian borders.

Senior officials agree that Georgia has more than proved itself. Both Anders Fogh Rasmussen (former NATO Secretary General) Philip Breedlove (former commander of US military forces in Europe) have stated that Georgia should be admitted — but their statements only came after their respective retirements.

Admittedly, Georgian politicians hardly help matters. Recent accusations of democratic backsliding have some merit, but they are hardly going to be encouraged to adhere to Western standards when they have seen little reward for their efforts (and have seen these same standards broken in both Europe and America time and again).

Naturally, the issue of including Georgia has always brought speculation that this would only provoke Russia into invading the country (again). The fact is, however, that at this time the Kremlin simply has no need to: it already maintains a sizeable military presence in Georgia’s separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as a base in northern Armenia and troops in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh on the Azerbaijani border.

Turkey and Russia have firmly established their strategic presence in the South Caucasus. It is time for the West to do the same — and Georgia is the key.

Tim Ogden is the Assistant Editor at New Europe. He is based in Georgia.