Geopolitical Diary: NATO Hands Russia a Small Victory
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
At its summit in Bucharest, NATO decided not to move Ukraine and Georgia into the Membership Action Plan, telling the two states that at some time in the future they would get their invitations to membership, just not now. Instead, NATO focused its membership drive on the Balkans, offering invitations to Albania and Croatia, a delayed invitation to Macedonia (effective once the name issue is sorted out with Greece) and intensified dialogue plans to Montenegro and Bosnia (and saying it would be willing to offer similar status to Serbia should the latter chose to apply). Leading up to the summit, there was a great deal of attention focused on the issue of Ukraine and Georgia — and the showdown between the United States and Russia being fought in the halls and meeting rooms in Bucharest. Washington backed membership invitations to Kiev and Tbilisi which Russia adamantly opposed (but had no say in the decision). And ultimately Germany and France cast the deciding votes for delay. This was a small victory for Russia, which has seen its periphery eaten away since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has its eyes (and strategic position) set on returning influence to its former republics. But despite U.S. President George W. Bush’s highly public visit to Kiev on his way to the Bucharest summit, Washington knew that a NATO consensus on Ukraine and Georgia was unlikely. The attention paid, instead, was designed to keep the pressure up on Russia — to discourage the former Cold War opponent from attempting a serious challenge to U.S. power and a return to the Cold War status quo. While Moscow breathed a sigh of relief with the ultimate NATO decision on its two former republics, it is a small victory for Russia. And Moscow made it a point to emphasize the breakaway regions in Georgia and the split population in Ukraine to remind NATO and the United States that the Russians still had leverage should NATO ever issue those invitations. In its focus on Ukraine and Georgia, Russia failed to discourage NATO’s support of U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, something Moscow has strongly opposed as well. But perhaps more significant in the near term is NATO’s focus on the Balkans. Europe has not had a very stellar track record when it comes to dealing with the volatile region, and is now using NATO as a tool to strengthen influence and political development in the region. The new and tentative membership invitations bring nearly all of the area — aside from Serbia and Kosovo (and NATO said it has no intention of withdrawing its existing force from Kosovo) — under the NATO umbrella, freeing Europe from sole responsibility for security issues. It also leaves Serbia surrounded, and highlights Russia’s inability to make good on its unspoken warnings should Kosovo declare independence. Offering Serbia intensified dialogue was, perhaps, simply rubbing salt into the wound of Russian inaction. While Russia might claim victory in keeping NATO out of Ukraine and Georgia for now, the support for missile defense and the whole-scale move into the Balkans was a clear demonstration of NATO’s challenge to Russia’s claims to influence and power. Russia could not stop the missile defense plan, and its warnings on Kosovo independence have gone unheeded (and unfulfilled). While Germany and France blocked Ukraine and Georgian membership in order to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia and protect their supplies of natural gas, the other key initiatives were no less a challenge to Russia’s resurgence — and at minimal cost.