U.S. President Barack Obama appeared to reveal a new policy for NATO accession for former Soviet states, or at least that is how Russia sees it. The apparent concessions are merely a shift in the public position on the qualifications of a competent NATO member, but the United States can easily renege on this new policy if it perceives that Moscow is backtracking on its commitments.
U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled what seems to be a new U.S. policy on NATO membership for former Soviet Union states, particularly Georgia and Ukraine, while speaking at the New Economic School in Moscow during the conclusion of his July 7 meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. After commenting on the inviolability of Georgian and Ukrainian sovereignty — apparent criticism of Russian actions in both states — Obama changed the direction of his speech and addressed their chances of NATO membership, saying that the United States will never impose a security agreement on another country. He added that for Georgia or Ukraine to become NATO members, the people of those countries must choose membership and the countries must change to "be able to contribute to the Alliance's mission." Obama underscored his remarks by saying that, "NATO seeks collaboration with Russia, not confrontation." The reference to the need for public support for NATO expansion inside acceding states is a first from the United States, and the need for serious military reforms prior to membership signals an apparent shift of U.S. policy for support of NATO expansion in Georgia and Ukraine. Obama's apparent concession on NATO expansion is being played up by the Kremlin as a key reversal on the issue of NATO membership for former Soviet states. It appears that Obama's statement shifts U.S. policy away from using NATO membership as a political tool for expansion of U.S. interests in the former Soviet Union sphere of influence. Under the administrations of former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, NATO expanded across Central Europe and former Soviet Union states regardless of public support within the countries or the effective military capability of the countries under consideration. From Moscow's perspective, NATO became the West's battering ram into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. By stressing military capability and public support as paramount to NATO accession, Obama effectively aligns U.S. policy with France and Germany — two other key NATO states. For Berlin, expanding membership to Ukraine and Georgia represents unnecessary political and military adventurism in the Russian sphere of influence, one that was provoking unnecessary response from Russia (for example, the August 2008 Georgia incursion). Furthermore, Ukraine and Georgia lack the political coherence and military capabilities that would make them competent NATO members. Public support for NATO membership is particularly dismal in Ukraine; over 50 percent of the population is against membership. Therefore, Obama's statement effectively freezes any movement toward a deeper security relationship between the United States and the two countries. There is not a country east of the current NATO states that is ready for membership without major, expensive and thorough military reforms. The new emphasis on public support and military capability now effectively excludes all of the former Soviet states and also Serbia, a country friendly to Russia where public support for NATO entry is very low (although NATO accession of Macedonia is likely to continue as soon as the name dispute with NATO member Greece concludes. The only European countries presently capable of NATO membership with little effort are Sweden and Finland. These are two states that possess military capabilities commensurate with NATO's standards and also public and political opinion has begun shifting recently toward accepting NATO membership. However, for Stockholm and Helsinki to consider membership they would need to first have sufficient public support internally (which is still developing) and political support externally by other European member states. That support would only come if the rest of European NATO members consider Russian resurgence as a serious security concern — and that is not clear, particularly in Berlin. Ultimately, the apparent U.S. concessions on Georgia and Ukraine are merely a shift in the public position on what makes a competent NATO membership applicant. It is not codified in a treaty or an agreement. Therefore, this is a position that will be easy to shift were the United States to feel that Moscow was backtracking on its commitments.