assessments

Mar 19, 2008 | 22:31 GMT

4 mins read

Georgia, Ukraine: Debating the Road to NATO Membership

BENOIT DOPPAGNE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Various NATO members have expressed their support for launching formal membership talks with the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia. NATO member states are now beginning to take sides over the direction of NATO policy.
Shortly after U.S. President George W. Bush threw his support behind launching the NATO accession process for the former Soviet state of Georgia, Canada led a phalanx of Central European NATO members in seconding Bush's statement and recommending the same for Ukraine as well. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia also threw their support behind granting Ukraine and Georgia membership action plans (MAPs), the first step on the road to full alliance protection. NATO plans to debate whether to extend MAP status to the two former Soviet states at the alliance's April 2-4 summit in Bucharest, Romania. Recommending a MAP hardly guarantees a MAP, much less full NATO membership. The award of MAPs is largely a political decision unfettered by any real technical requirements. The road to NATO membership is an open-ended one that — especially in the case of militarily dysfunctional Ukraine and Georgia — takes years. MAPs help potential members to professionalize and upgrade their armed services and meet NATO interoperability and force requirements. Ultimately, alliance members fall into two camps on the issue of granting MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia. The first group is represented by the previously mentioned countries, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom. This group sees MAP status as a purely political decision meant to prepare states for eventual membership. It sees the hard work of actually qualifying for membership as something that will come after granting MAP status. As much as anything, publicly talking of expanding NATO is designed to rattle the Kremlin — which fears its geopolitical buffer is shrinking. The primary concern of the first group of NATO states is to consolidate post-Cold War Western gains and roll back Russian influence as far and as quickly as possible. The second group, most clearly represented by Germany, Luxembourg and Norway, is more circumspect. While it hardly opposes Ukrainian or Georgian membership in principle, it has two main concerns. First, it is anxious about the impact awarding MAPs will have on Russian-Western relations. These states do not wish to risk a confrontation over states not yet lying within the Western defense perimeter — and certainly not over states Russia considers near and dear to its defensive needs. Second, this batch of states only wishes to extend MAP status to states they see as making meaningful progress towards NATO standards even without MAP status. For this group of states, the functionality and coherence of the defensive alliance is more important than the alliance's geographic spread. (This is not to say the first group does not care about alliance functionality and coherence.) On both points, this second group fears that Ukraine and Georgia have failed. A referendum over NATO membership probably would not pass in Ukraine, and neither government stability nor military efficiency are exactly hallmarks of the Ukrainian and Georgian systems. The first group responds by pointing to the alliance's successful Cold War absorption of Spain, Greece and Turkey — three members whose governments at the time were anything but sure bets. The second group points to the 1998 and 2004 acceptance of the bulk of Central Europe, whose military teething pains are sure to cause the alliance heartburn for years to come. Ultimately, MAP status — not to mention ultimate alliance membership — comes down to a vote among NATO members; and this vote must be unanimous. In the two weeks before the summit, just how interested the pro-MAP states are in pressuring the other allies to expand the alliance will become plain. Regardless, such open discussions of when — not whether — to expand are sure to panic the Russians, who see their neighborhood becoming less Russian-dominated by the day.

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