Georgia's absence from US-led military exercise in Europe raises concerns

Georgia's absence from US-led military exercise in Europe raises concerns
Oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, is accused by critics of being behind the country's shift towards Russia. / bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi May 3, 2023

Georgia will not participate in the "Defender 23" military exercises organised by the United States in Europe this year, sparking concerns among political analysts who believe it reflects an increased anti-Western sentiment in the Georgian government.

In 2020, the military exercise known as "Defender-Europe" took place and it was recognized as the "biggest deployment of US troops to Europe in over 25 years". The exercises, which are supposed to take place from April 22 to June 23, involve approximately 9,000 US military personnel along with 17,000 soldiers from allied and partner countries. The training is believed to be focused on deterring Russian aggression and takes place in the territory of 10 European countries.

Georgia was initially listed among the countries participating in the US military exercises in Europe, which were announced by the Pentagon at the start of April. The list of participating countries has since been removed from the Pentagon's website.

Some analysts view the decision not to participate as a cause for concern about the continuation of the country's pro-Western foreign policy, given recent tensions in Georgia's relations with the US and other Western partners. 

Representatives of the ruling party often resort to aggressive and derogatory rhetoric towards EU officials and members of the European Parliament, accusing them of interfering in Georgia's internal affairs. Georgian government representatives have been repeating the conspiracy theory that there is a Western agenda to involve Georgia in confronting Russia by launching a "second front" in the Caucausus. 

Furthermore, the government's parliamentary majority has attempted to pass restrictive laws targeting civil society and the media, which heavily rely on external funding sources for over 20% of their budgets. Tension with the US peaked on April 5 when the United States State Department imposed sanctions on high-profile Georgian judges for “significant corruption”.

The Ministry of Defense has defended its decision on the exercises, stating that it was focusing on international and local exercises that take into account the goals and objectives of the defence forces, including increasing combat readiness, interoperability with Nato member and partner countries, sharing experience, and improving professional skills. The ministry also highlighted that Georgia will participate in several other exercises throughout the year, including those in Turkey, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, England, Germany, Azerbaijan, Italy, and Georgia.

"Specific exercises may be related to different logistical costs and difficulties. We [do not see] a problem in this, and no one should," Georgian Defence Minister Juansher Burchuladzehe told reporters.