Pentagon cancels military exercises in Georgia, a top ally in Afghan war

The U.S. will “indefinitely postpone” a military exercise with Georgia — once among the most steadfast supporters of the U.S. war in Afghanistan — after leaders in the ex-Soviet nation introduced a slate of Kremlin-style laws in recent months.

In a release announcing the postponement, the Pentagon cited “false accusations” by leaders of the Georgian Dream party, the ruling political party in Georgia. Leaders of the party have accused the U.S. and Western allies of pressuring Georgia to “open a second front against Russia” in its war in Ukraine. Party leaders also accused the U.S. of participating in two failed coups. 

However, some experts outside the Pentagon with experience in eastern Europe see the cancellation of the exercise as a win for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“Our Georgia policy is being written by our actions and we are backing away from Georgia,” said retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, former commander of U.S. European Command. “That’s a bad message. I believe that our administration is nearly fully deterred by Russia. We are taking no actions to ‘provoke Russia’ and where Russia exerts its power, we back up.”

The Department of Defense announced Friday that it would “indefinitely postpone” the annual Noble Partner exercise, which had been scheduled for July 25 to Aug. 6 at the Vaziani and Camp Norio Training Areas in Georgia.

The breakdown in relations behind the canceled exercise is a major turn from the Afghan war, when Georgia was the largest per-capita contributor of troops for over a decade. Beginning in 2010, Georgia deployed more than 20,000 soldiers to Afghanistan where they frequently saw combat, Breedlove said.

“It’s just really disappointing that our nation would treat Georgia this way after they were so steadfast in their support of our efforts in Afghanistan,” Breedlove said. “They basically said we’ll go anywhere an American goes and we’ll do anything an American will do. They were absolutely incredible soldiers, incredible commitment to their job and to their mission and they served with distinction and valor.”

At least 32 Georgian troops were killed in Afghanistan, most during intense fighting between 2010 and 2014 in Helmand province, with over 300 wounded.

Georgian troops, Breedlove said, arrived in Afghanistan without many of the “caveats” that other nations placed on their soldiers. While many partners opted to send troops but limited their participation in combat or night-time operations, or required they remain on bases, Georgians did not, said Breedlove.

The news comes as officials from across Europe are set to meet in Washington D.C. this week for the 2024 NATO Summit, marking the 75th anniversary of the world’s largest security alliance. Officials are expected to discuss NATO support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. 

But Georgian Dream, led by Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, is seen as one of the country’s pro-Russian political factions. The party reintroduced a bill to bring back a foreign agent law, mirrored after one that Russia passed in 2012, requiring individuals, civil society organizations, and media outlets to register as foreign agents if they receive at least 20% of funding from abroad. According to Humans Rights Watch, the legislation aims to “marginalize and discredit independent, foreign-funded groups and media that serve the wider public interest in Georgia.” The measure was met with weeks-long protests in Tbilisi. 

In May, the State Department announced visa restrictions for Georgian politicians who led efforts to pass the law, accusing them of “undermining democracy in Georgia.” After the announcement, a State Department spokesperson said the U.S. hoped Georgian leaders would “reconsider their actions and take steps to move forward with their nations’ long stated democratic and Europe-Atlantic aspirations.”

Experts have raised alarms about Russia’s hybrid warfare against Georgia through disinformation campaigns to weaken its relationship with the West and by funding pro-Kremlin political campaigns in the country since Georgia declared its independence more than 30 years ago.

Breedlove said the U.S. decision to back away from Georgia means Russia can use all of its tools “to thwart the government of Georgia and to cause them to come back under Russian control.”

In previous iterations of Noble Partner, soldiers from Georgia, the U.S. and UK trained together in urban operations, defensive training positions, combined mechanized maneuvers and live-fire exercises. Hodges said the annual training is important for improving both military’s joint knowledge of infrastructure, practicing movement and “demonstrating that we care about the region.” 

A political decision

The Pentagon said that the U.S. didn’t make the cancellation “decision lightly” and that it would continue to partner with Georgian military forces to strengthen the country’s “ability to safeguard its sovereignty and maintain its territorial integrity.” 

Glen Howard, former president for the Washington D.C. think tank, the Jamestown Foundation said the Biden administration was likely trying to send a “democracy message” that the U.S. is “unhappy about what’s happening inside of Georgia” with its parliament passing anti-democratic policies on foreign agent registration and measures to curtail LGBTQ rights.

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Both former U.S. military commanders interviewed by Task & Purpose said the decision seemed counterintuitive to broader Western goals to limit Russian influence in the region. Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former Commander of the U.S. Army Europe said the decision reflects the lack of a clear policy in the Black Sea region. 

“The decision to postpone exercises, that’s a policy statement, but it’s not connected to any well founded thought out strategy for the region,” he said.

Howard noted Georgia’s specific importance “as a cork in the bottle for the caucuses” to prevent the post-Soviet and eastern European nations from sliding towards Russia and away from the West.

“In other words, Georgia goes, the Russians cut off Azerbaijan, they cut off the Caspian, they cut off the ‘stans and they control the geopolitical destiny of the region and they control China,” Howard said. “The east, west, north, south transportation corridors go through Georgia. The geopolitical importance of Georgia is not lost here and we need to keep that in mind when we’re making our policy decisions.”

Hodges also said that such a politically driven decision could undermine U.S.-Georgia military cooperation going forward and give Russia more ammo to push anti-American narratives.

“It will reinforce the notion that some countries have that the U.S. is maybe not as reliable as we used to be,” he said. “When you cancel an exercise, because we’re unhappy with the Georgia Dream government, that misses the whole point of why we do the exercise. It’s kind of like cutting your nose off to spite your face.”

Howard said that pro-Russian factions in Georgia are likely applauding the decision. Those in the military who have trained with American troops and are pro-U.S., will not be engaged.

“Do you want to show these people at the end of the day you’re gonna be there to help them or are you going to roll up the flag and say, ‘We’re heading out guys. See you later,’” Howard said. “That’s how it may appear.”

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Patty Nieberg

Sr. Staff Writer

Patty is a senior staff writer for Task & Purpose. She has covered the military and national defense for five years, including embedding with the National Guard during Hurricane Florence and covering legal proceedings for a former al Qaeda commander at Guantanamo Bay. Her previous bylines can be found at the Associated Press, Bloomberg Government, Washington Post, The New York Times, and ABC.