reflections

Jun 8, 2006 | 07:27 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: A Russian Message For NATO

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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday in a speech to the Duma that "every country has the right to make sovereign decisions…. At the same time, the acceptance into NATO of Ukraine and Georgia will mean a colossal geopolitical shift, and we assess such steps from the point of view of our interests." This is pretty blunt language for a diplomat. Russia does not want to see a colossal geopolitical shift, and that's what it thinks is happening. The Russian Foreign Ministry also condemned Ukraine's decision to bar several senior Russian lawmakers from Ukraine. One of these, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is a fairly notorious Russian nationalist. The Russian Foreign Ministry doesn't much care for Zhirinovsky, but it also obviously doesn't care for Ukraine barring Russian legislators — even if, as the Ukrainians put it, he was known for "insulting statements about Ukraine." At the same time, a Ukrainian diplomat was also refused entry to Russia. Both Ukraine and Georgia clearly want to join NATO. There are multinational joint military exercises scheduled for July in Ukraine, to include U.S. forces. These have met with protests by pro-Russian Ukrainians, whom the Ukrainian government claims are being stirred up by the Russians. At the same time, Georgia announced that it will build a NATO-compliant military based in Gori, to join the one already built in Senaki. As we have said, NATO's expansion to Ukraine would be the break point for Russia. Adding to that a NATO base in the Caucasus would absolutely convince the Russians that the United States is planning to encircle them. Russia has been busy trying to demonstrate the cost of this strategy to NATO and the United States. It has intruded into U.S. areas of interest in the Middle East, particularly regarding Hamas and Iran. It has not intruded as aggressively as it could, still signaling Washington that things are not past the break point. Nevertheless, as NATO accession looms for Ukraine and Georgia, things will get less pleasant. There is a fundamental difference in NATO's admitting Georgia and Ukraine from the admission of other former Soviet bloc nations. NATO is a military alliance. Bringing in Hungary or the Czech Republic meant little from that point of view; there is no real, immediate threat for NATO to protect them from. Admitting Ukraine and Georgia would mean entering into a formal alliance with countries that face serious regional threats. It would mean making a commitment to defending those countries and therefore, in some way, for assuring their stability. It is hard to defend an unstable country. Every other expansion of NATO has been notional. By that we mean that it amounted to a political signal, far more than a serious political commitment. That is not the case with these two countries. In fact, that is the point the Russians are working very hard to make. The Russian statement on Wednesday was a message. Russia regards Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO as a major, unwelcome geopolitical shift. As such, Moscow will resist this process — and failing that, will consider these two countries a threat to Russia. Geographically, the defense of either of these countries against a major regional power — which Russia certainly is — is a significant burden. Neither country can defend itself. Moreover, each country has other regional antagonists that NATO would be committed against — such as, in Georgia's case, Armenia. That is quite a tangle to get into. What is attracting Washington is the opportunity to guarantee, by surrounding it with NATO members, that Russia will not re-emerge as a superpower. The Russians see this move as that, plus a threat to the long-term territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. The Russians do not believe that they can simply accept this as a fait accompli, as they accepted other NATO expansions. Therefore, this will trigger Russian responses in the region and more broadly. The most important thing to watch here is relations between Russia and China. China has been very careful not to get entangled with anti-American alliances. It has important economic issues to deal with. However, given recent U.S. statements on how it views China, access to Russian military technology becomes more important to Beijing. And Russia knows it does not, by itself, have the weight to counter the United States. Therefore, the logic here, over the coming months, is closer ties between Moscow and Beijing. When this happened last, in 1948, Washington found itself in an uncomfortable position. Therefore, it has to calculate how quickly it can move and consolidate its position via NATO before the Russians can act. And then there is also the question of the European members of NATO — particularly France and Germany — whose acceptance of NATO expansion up to this point has been a signal to Washington of a willingness to cooperate. On the other hand, NATO is going to a complicated and dangerous place. Paris and Berlin may not have the appetite for Washington's game.

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