Exclusive Interview with NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative Javier Colomina

NATO-Georgia relations, efforts to enhance Georgia’s defense capabilities, and Georgia’s membership perspective were discussed in an exclusive interview on the First Channel of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) with Javier Colomina, NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia. Colomina visited Georgia last week.

We will start with NATO and Georgia relations. Where are we now and what can be done more to strengthen Georgia’s defense capabilities?

The relationship between Georgia and NATO is in very good health. Bilaterally, we are cooperating. We are using all the tools we have to cooperate with our partners, particularly practical cooperation through military-to-military channels. We are working on many areas, cyber, hybrid, maritime security, and special operation forces. We are actually doing excellent work in trying to make, Georgian armed forces more interoperable and more professional. And we are very satisfied with that. The level of the relationship is therefore very good. It’s been always like that in the last years. Now we are particularly happy because of the decision that was taken by the European Union only a few days ago to grant Georgia the candidate status. It’s excellent news for Georgia, but it’s also excellent news for the international community, particularly for those as NATO, that value very much the partnership that we have with Georgia and that we believe we should try to make that partnership as strong as possible

Regarding the NATO Open Door policy. There is a clear statement in the Georgian constitution regarding NATO membership. But do NATO members believe that this is enough to say that Georgia’s membership is inventible?

We believe very much in our Open Door Policy that is stated in our founding treaty, the Washington Treaty. We stick very much to the decisions that we took in 2008, where we established very clearly that both Ukraine and Georgia will become at some point members of the alliance. It is a process that needs to take place. It is a decision that needs to take place from the alliance, a political decision, to agree on the integration of Georgia within the alliance. But as I said, the practical cooperation is in very good health. We want to see some of the reforms that we’ve been requesting to be implemented. At the same time, the European Union is following its own set of requirements and we’re both working together in order to see the fulfilment of the Euro-Atlantic path by Georgia.

You mentioned the reforms, so we are getting closer to the 2024 elections, important elections in Georgia. Is NATO planning to send observers here, and what is your expectation? 

Well, we just don’t do that. We don’t send observers, but we have a NATO Parliamentary Assembly. They have the members of the Parliaments of the Alliance that could if they decide to do so, participate as observers in elections. But that’s not a decision taken by NATO. It’s an independent body. We don’t do that. We just expect the elections to be carried out in a fair, competitive and free manner, as we expect in any healthy democracy. This is a message that I have conveyed to your authorities.

The NDI latest data shows that support towards Georgia’s NATO membership decreased by 6%. It still stands high at 67%. But do you think that this decrease is connected to Russia’s demand that Georgia must not join NATO?

No, I don’t think so. I think that the support coming from your population is very strong. it’s been always between 70% and 80%. The fact that it now has decreased by 5-6% could be just attached to the fact that the EU process has been evolving more rapidly. But, I don’t think there is a connection with any of the Russian positions. We’ve been very clear, that the Georgian people should be deciding on their own future, own security arrangements. And we will be supporting that. I believe you’re in good hands as long as the population has a strong level of support for the Euro-Atlantic path. We will continue to work together, Georgia and NATO.

Last week, the US Congress approved the 2024 National Defence Authorization Act. The document notes, “It is in the interest of the United States that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization adopt a robust strategy toward the Black Sea”. Is NATO working on this strategy, and do you have consultations with Georgia regarding its role in this strategy?

The Black Sea is a region of strategic importance for us. It was stated very clearly in the strategic concept that was approved in Madrid at the summit that took place in 2022. And we consider the Black Sea region of enormous importance for the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area. In that sense, before the war, we used to do military maritime exercises in the Black Sea. We used to have port calls in Georgia ports and strong maritime cooperation in the Black Sea with Georgia. Now that is not possible, but still, the Black Sea is very relevant for us. It is part of our military plans and it is part of the conversations that we have with both allies and partners in the region.

But at the same time, Russia says it plans to establish a permanent naval base in the occupied territory of Abkhazia. Georgian government condemned this plan and the opposition parties are calling for a unified stance against this plan. What kind of threats does it bring to NATO and what is your reaction?

Whenever we see investments from Russia to have a presence in areas that are in our vicinity, it is a matter of concern. As I said, the Black Sea today is already considered a region of strategic importance. Therefore, it is part of our military plans. And therefore, if we see the need, we will be capable and willing to take action if we are under attack or if we consider that it is threatening enough.

We see a growing number of violations of human rights in the Russian-occupied territory of Georgia including the killing and kidnapping of peaceful citizens. How NATO can help Georgia to prevent such crimes?

Well, I think through two ways. First, we’ve been working with Georgia, as much as we’ve been able, to reinforce the capabilities of Georgia. At the same time, by working with NATO authorities, we’ve been increasing the level of the deterrence messages. Messages that we’ve been sending to the rest of the world and particularly to Russia. We’ve been extremely clear that we support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia. That is a message that has been coming from Brussels in a very consistent manner. We have reacted when we’ve seen incidents as such. And of course, my condolences whenever we’ve seen the killing of Georgian citizens. I have myself reacted to show that NATO will continue to work with Georgia, to support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of your country, and therefore will continue to condemn actions as such from Russia.

Next question regarding our region. As we saw recently, Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the path of signing a peace deal. You have met the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. What does it mean for the whole region?

We are quite optimistic about the joint declaration that was signed by Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev. I’ve met with the ministers recently and also with the leaders of those countries in different moments. We believe it’s very good news. We have been very supportive of the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We’ve been supporting the efforts towards that normalization coming from the European Union or from the United States or the ones that have been carried out by Armenia and Azerbaijan bilaterally. We will continue to support those and hope for the best. It is fundamental indeed for us that stability in the Caucasus region is preserved, not only through the work that we do in Georgia, but also through the stability that could be brought from Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Keeping in mind that the Armenian government is seeking diversification of its security policy, do you see interest from Yerevan in getting closer to NATO?

I think Armenia has decided very clearly to make a shift in their foreign policy to take some distance from Moscow. It’s something that we have encouraged. The Armenians are free to take their own decisions, but they decided to do that and I believe they’re already starting to get closer to us – to ask for more cooperation, to ask for more political dialogue, to ask for more NATO presence and visibility in the relationship they have with us. We encourage whatever is decided by our partners that we believe is good for the stability of a region. That is very important for us.

War in Ukraine. 2 years have passed since the war started, NATO Secretary General last week said that if Russia wins, there is a real risk of Russia attacking other countries. Do you think that Georgia could be on Putin’s list and what will be NATO reaction?

We don’t see a risk today of that happening. We don’t see Georgia being at risk of being invaded by Russia. I was asked about this several times in the last year and a half. We believe there is a risk for hybrid attacks, for cyber interference, for malign interference. And that’s why we decided in Madrid, At the NATO Summit to approve tailored support measures to support specifically Georgia in these circumstances. But not only Georgia but also all the countries that we thought were in similar risk, such as Moldova or Bosnia Herzegovina. If the war is finally won by Putin, I can only agree with the Secretary General, that the risk of the Russians and Putin to maybe try to engage in other wars will be greater. Therefore, we need to support Ukraine as much as we can, all of us, to allow them to win the war and to have the best chances on the battlefield or in the negotiations, if they decide to go for those.

You mentioned an interesting thing, as you said – ‘If finally Russia will win the war’. So, there is a possible scenario for that?

Well, there is always that scenario, but we’re not even working with that scenario. I was just referring to the statements by the Secretary General that you mentioned. We only consider one possible scenario, which is to give the best possible chance for the Ukrainians to win on the battlefield or to have the best possible chances at the negotiation table if they decide to go for it. We don’t speculate on the option of the Russians winning the war. It is always a possibility, of course, but at this stage, we need to continue to support Ukraine as much as we can and it is the utmost priority of NATO to continue to do so.

At the same time, We see that there is a substantial decline in Ukraine’s military and financial support. Including NATO member states, like the U.S., but others are also starting to hesitate. Don’t you think there is a risk of NATO getting tired of the war in Ukraine?

Not at this stage we don’t see any weakening in the support. We don’t see hesitations. We don’t even see a lack of visibility in the support they’re providing. Only a month ago Netherlands approved a 2.5 billion package for Ukraine. Americans approved a 10 billion package. Now there’s a 60 billion package on Congress. It’s been delayed in the approval, but it will certainly be approved soon enough. So at this stage. at least upon the conversations that we’ve had with leaders and ministers, we don’t see a weakening in the support. We believe there is a clear conviction and political will to continue to support Ukraine as long as it takes.

Last week, we saw that a Russian drone fell on Romania’s territory that is NATO territory. In this regard, what is the red line for NATO’s collective defence?

We’ve been, of course, informed every minute by the authorities of Romania, which was the country that was affected by the drone that fell. We have been condemning Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure. That is a very clear message. They’ve been attacking civilian infrastructure very close to the borders of NATO territory. But neither Romania nor NATO, we don’t see an intention in this case. We believe it was an incident. Therefore, we’re not actually activating any other response.

So you are saying that there must be an armed attack on the NATO territory to have a NATO response?

Article 5 is triggered by the invocation of one ally after an armed attack. In this case, we didn’t see the invocation, we didn’t see the armed attack because it wasn’t. We didn’t see the intention. So, in general terms, we will need an armed attack and we will need the will of a nation invoking Article 5.