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Joseph Larsen and Mariam Grigalashvili*
On September 18, 2017, the U.S. Senate passed a military budget for 2018. Formally titled the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018”, the Act needs to be reconciled with the House of Representatives before it can be signed into law by President Trump. The Act commits to $696 billion in defense spending for the next year, about $630 million more than what the White House requested.
Much of that money will be spent countering Russian aggression in Europe (see “Subtitle D—Matters Relating to the Russian Federation.” The Act quotes General Curtis M. Scaparrotti: “In the east, a resurgent Russia has turned from partner to antagonist. Countries along Russia’s periphery, especially Ukraine and Georgia, are under threat from Moscow’s malign influence and military aggression.”
In particular, the budget allocates $4.6 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative (previously the “European Reassurance Initiative”), a project to strengthen NATO in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The budget also allocates $5 billion each to NATO’s cyber defense and strategic communications programs in response to Russian subversion in Europe.
References to Georgia
Most notably, the Act calls on NATO countries to “continue support for the NATO membership action plan for Georgia.” The 2017 defense budget contained no reference to the MAP (whereas the 2016 budget included a statement similar to that of 2018).
This is an important difference. The 2017 budget only mentioned Georgia once, in relation to Russia’s compliance with the Open Skies Treaty.
Compared to budgets from the previous two years, the 2018 budget emphasizes Georgia’s contributions to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and the Multi-National Force in Iraq as well as its participation in the NATO initiative Partnership for Peace.
The Act also includes more direct references to Georgia’s immediate security concerns. There, the Senate reaffirms “Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders, and does not recognize the independence of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions currently occupied by the Russian Federation.”
The Act condemns Russia for “directing combined Russian-Separatist units in eastern Ukraine” but does not mention Russia’s creeping annexation and borderization activities in Georgia. Instead, it contains only a general reference to the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see above).
- The U.S. signaled its commitment to a NATO membership perspective for Georgia. The 2017 budget didn’t make direct reference to the MAP, so this is worth mentioning. It’s also consistent with messages from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. During a visit to Georgia in late July, Pence declared that the U.S. stands behind the outcome of the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, which pledged eventual membership for Georgia.
- In the absence of coherent strategy and messaging from the White House on Eastern Europe, Congress has taken the lead. Passage of the military budget comes about two months after Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. The Act directly refers to Russia’s “illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, its illegal occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008, and its ongoing destabilizing activities in eastern Ukraine.” Georgia has many supporters in Congress, so more legislative activity is a good sign.
- The document refers to Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but does not mention its creeping annexation and borderization activities. This is an oversight and an indicator that Georgia needs to work harder to raise awareness about borderization in Washington.
- Whatever the Kremlin expected to get from the Trump Administration, it certainly wasn’t this. The president himself hasn’t criticized Putin or the regime. He hasn’t had to. Vice President Pence and majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have sent a stern message: The U.S. will not allow Russia to return the countries of Eastern Europe to its sphere of influence, at least not without a fight.
* Joseph Larsen and Mariam Grigalashvili, GIP Policy Analysts.