In the lead-up to the NATO summit set to begin on Friday in Warsaw, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been in active diplomatic mode, visiting two countries that, at first glance, might seem unlikely priorities. Kerry spent Wednesday and Thursday in the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine — neither of which is in the bloc — to discuss security issues with the countries' leaders. Though neither is likely to top the agenda at the upcoming summit, both stand to play an important role in the Russia-West standoff in the coming months.
In fact, over the past decade, Georgia and Ukraine have been influential in determining Russia's relations with the West. During the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, the United States assured both countries that they could eventually join the bloc. Russia countered four months later with its short-lived war with Georgia.
The war marked Russia's resurgence as a regional power. Six years later, however, events in Ukraine revealed the limits of that power. After the Euromaidan uprising overthrew the Russia-friendly government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014, the new leadership in Kiev drew closer with the West. In response, Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting the pro-Russia rebellion in eastern Ukraine, again stoking secessionism and unrest in a Western-leaning former Soviet country.
Although NATO declined to intervene directly in either conflict, Russia's actions in Georgia and Ukraine galvanized the bloc to boost its defense measures. The Ukraine crisis, the larger and more enduring of the two battles, spurred NATO and Russia alike to increase their deployments of weapons and troops along the European borderlands. Now, at the upcoming summit, NATO is expected to confirm its plans to deploy a battalion each to Poland and the Baltic states as it redoubles other initiatives, including patrols in the Baltic and Black seas.
Moreover, despite Russia's intentions, the fighting in Georgia and Ukraine has led the countries to cooperate with NATO even more. Last year, Georgia opened a NATO training center, and member countries provide Ukraine training and logistical support for its war effort in Donbas. Even so, NATO membership, which Georgia has long pursued and Ukraine has become more open toward, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Both countries are embroiled in indirect conflicts with Russia, and NATO is not looking to bring on small and distant members that would invoke its collective defense clause.
Nonetheless, Georgia and Ukraine are a significant part of NATO's debate over its ties with Russia, which have grown more tense because of conflicts in the former Soviet theater and elsewhere, namely in Syria. In visiting the countries on the eve of the NATO summit, Kerry has underlined their importance to the United States, the bloc's largest and strongest member. And as the United States continues to encourage the former Soviet countries' westward shift, the standoff between Moscow and the West will only intensify.
But Ukraine and Georgia are merely two parts of a complicated negotiation process between Russia and the West. Other factors, including the war in Syria, the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and arms buildups in Europe, also figure into the process. Together, these issues will determine the extent to which the West in general, and the United States in particular, interacts with peripheral but pivotal countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. Kerry's visits to Tbilisi and Kiev, therefore, serve as an important precursor — but one whose ultimate goal is still being decided.