The guerilla campaign conducted by NATO's Eastern European members to keep the alliance from straying too far from its Cold War-era trenches looking out toward Russia has taken a new turn.
Having tried -- and failed -- to extract an ironclad and actionable guarantees that the mutual defense clause enshrined in Article 5 of NATO's charter would be fully applicable to any and all acts of Russian aggression, the guerillas appear to have changed tactics.
Behind the scenes of the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, on April 22-23, all the attention was suddenly on Article 4. Instead of the head-on collision with a foe implied by Article 5, Article 4 sets out a framework for allies to request consultations on their security concerns. It states: "The parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened."
The Estonian hosts of the meeting in Tallinn obliquely acknowledged a shift in tactics. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves publicly admonished local journalists for their fixation with Article 5, saying that "Article 4 is no less important."
Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told RFE/RL that for Estonia, "there are no problems with Article 5." Nevertheless, tacitly admitting to latent concerns, the minister went on to say that "one possibility" would be to develop the "under-used Article 4 into a procedure to be evoked without hesitation in possible crises." Paet also alluded to a possible "preventive" role of Article 4.
When it comes to Russia, Estonia is in the thick of things with the two other Baltic states, with their sizeable ethnic Russian minorities. All three are waging what have come to be known as "memory wars" with a Russia unwilling to acknowledge communist-era crimes and the forcible occupation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union. To Moscow's great consternation, all give ardent backing to the pro-Western aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia, and have sounded alarm bells over the impending sale by France of Mistral-class warships to Russia.
The shift of attention to Article 4 appears to have the blessing of NATO's powers-that-be. At least Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen volunteered support for the resuscitation of the rarely used clause, telling a security conference in the margins of the Tallinn meeting that "traditionally we [NATO] have tended not to discuss issues until we were required to deal with them." But, he said, NATO should "discuss a far greater range of security issues that are of concern to allies. Not just those which demand immediate response."
Article 4, Rasmussen concluded, "will allow to develop the necessary common position on these potentially difficult issues."
It remains to be seen whether the step back taken by NATO's Eastern European dissidents (assuming this is what has happened) will be followed by two steps forward (as is doubtless the intention).
At first glance, this appears doubtful, to say the least. First, Rasmussen and the Estonian exponents of Article 4 clearly have differing takes on the assumptions underlying any possible resorting to the clause. Where the former sees an opportunity for "consultations," the latter put an emphasis on "prevention."
Meanwhile, the United States and NATO's larger Western European allies have made it abundantly clear they have no wish at all to antagonize Russia for the foreseeable future. Putting cooperation with Russia at risk is seen as counterproductive for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from the tactical to strategic.
There is also the danger that consultations, when initiated, do not produce consensus, but, instead, simply serve to broadcast evidence of divisions. This famously happened in the run-up to the war in Iraq. And not only in the shape of the acrimonious debate involving the United States on one side and Germany and France on the other. When Turkey, fearful of a an Iraqi backlash after an invasion, specifically tried to invoke Article 4, it took weeks for Ankara to get NATO to formally acknowledge its concerns.
In fact, it is difficult if not impossible to recall a single instance within NATO or the European Union -- both made up of ultimately sovereign nation-states -- where a clash between fundamental national interests led to significant concessions from any side.
Finally, the Balts (and their backers) must reckon with the danger that by agreeing an element of deliberation to enter a process that (at least theoretically) has functioned as a knee-jerk reaction they risk giving outside parties a virtual say in NATO decision-making. Extended consultations and deliberations are eminently manipulable by forces intent on sowing discord.
-- Ahto Lobjakas