This week, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Europe to attend the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels. Ahead of the event Secretary Austin visited Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania to “reassure frontline states”.
His visit, and the language the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) used in conveying the purpose of the trip, reasserted the notion that Georgia and Ukraine are still seen by the United States as America’s allies at the frontlines of Russian aggression. Ahead of the trip the DoD website quoted one of the senior U.S. officials saying "We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the frontlines of Russian aggression.” This important visit came at a crucial time, as many in Georgia and Ukraine have become disenchanted with the Biden Administration’s lack of clear Eurasia policy up to this point.
Over the recent years Georgia has gradually fallen from grace with its western allies and its democratic path has started to falter. The country has been embroiled in political chaos, the government unable to mitigate a flurry of scandals and crises. The E.U. has remained actively engaged with Georgia and even withheld aid for non-compliance with judiciary reform promises. The U.S., on the other hand, has been relatively inactive so far, unwilling to pressure the Georgian government to remedy its illiberal streak. Meanwhile, Russia has gained the upper hand in the region. Russian military is present in all three South Caucasus states, and Ukraine’s fate remains in Moscow’s hands as the war in Donbas goes on and Crimea remains off-limits to Kyiv.
NATO has shown that it is invested in the Black Sea and looks to become more invested in the region’s security to counter Russian aggression there. However, NATO’s challenges in the Black Sea are complex and without significant American initiative and involvement NATO has been ineffective in balancing out Russia’s dominance so far. Secretary Austin’s visit marked a new era in U.S. military engagement with the non-member NATO-friendly states of Ukraine and Georgia as they’ve been once again branded as frontline allies in an ongoing U.S. effort to counter Russian aggression. Moreover, the trip singled out another Black Sea state that is an actual NATO member - Romania as a "role-model ally” to the United States. According to the DoD statement "Romania … is doing just about everything that we could possibly ask of a NATO ally, so we have the opportunity to recognize that and appreciate that. Romania spends more than 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense with 20 percent of that going to modernization. Both are NATO goals.”
The DoD statement also underlined the fact that these are not just individual country allies to the United States, but that Washington sees them as representatives of the strategically critical Black Sea region.
“The Department of Defense steadfastly supports its European Allies and partners in the face of Russia’s destabilizing actions in the critical Black Sea region, and the Secretary looks forward to meeting with his counterparts and other senior officials to reinforce the United States’ commitment to a safe, stable, and prosperous Europe.”
In Georgia, Secretary Austin met with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze and reaffirm U.S. support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In his meetings and statements he underscored the importance of the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership and discussed bilateral security cooperation and encourage greater regional cooperation in the Black Sea. They also signed a memorandum of understanding on deepening the bilateral security cooperation through the new Georgia Defense and Deterrence Enhancement Initiative. The Initiative consists of two components. One component
focuses on organizational change to build Georgia’s institutional capacity in the defense sector. The second focuses on strengthening GDF capabilities to train and employ brigades in combined arms operations necessary for territorial defense.
In Ukraine, the Secretary will meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Minister of Defense Andrii Taran and reaffirmed U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and discussed Ukraine’s progress with industry reforms needed and regional cooperation among Black Sea allies and partners.
Secretary Austin also called on Russia to end the war in Donbas and stop its cyberattacks on the U.S. The conflict has taken over 13,000 lives since April 2014. "We again call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea, to stop perpetuating the war in Eastern Ukraine, to end its destabilizing activities in the Black Sea and along Ukraine's borders. … And to halt its persistent cyberattacks and other malign activities against the United States and our allies and partners.”
Secretary Austin and Minister Taran also discussed the implementation process for the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Defense Framework which the two sides signed during President Zelensky’s visit to Washington in September. The Framework is designed to be implemented through 2026 and includes the following:
“Ensuring that bilateral security cooperation and U.S. assistance effectively helps Ukraine to counter Russian aggression, including through a robust training and exercise program. Implementing defense sector reforms, in line with NATO principles and standards, building on the significant progress made since 2014. Facilitating the execution of a defense industry strategy and reforms to meet the needs of Ukraine’s forces, including greater transparency in Ukrainian defense procurement, the implementation of Ukrainian corporate governance reforms, and building long-term strategic partnership in the field of science and technology that impact the future security environment. Deepening Black Sea cooperation to ensure freedom of navigation and effectively counter external threats and challenges in all domains. Strengthening cooperation on cyber security to deter malicious cyber activities on national security systems, to attribute such activities, and to defend against adversaries effectively. Closer partnership of defense intelligence communities in support of military planning and defensive operations.”
U.S. Ukraine aid budget for 2021 currently amounts $400 million.
In Romania, Secretary Austin met with President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca and there too he discussed Black Sea security issues and regional security cooperation. The two sides spoke of “Russia’s malign activities in the Black Sea region, cooperation among Black Sea regional Allies and partners, and new challenges presented by the People’s Republic of China.”
Ahead of the NATO Ministerial it was made clear what’s on the minds of those in charge of the United States Department of Defense when it comes to NATO’s Eastern Flank: Russian aggression in the Black Sea, more effective U.S. military engagement with the non-NATO-member allies in the region, and the likely new challenges posed by China. This is Secretary Austin’s first in-person NATO Defense Ministerial.
Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program. Maia also serves as the Deputy Director of Research at FPRI. Her research interests include geopolitics and security of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, Russian foreign policy, and the post-Soviet “frozen” conflicts.