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NATO Attempts Balancing Act Over Georgia-Russia Conflict

  • Ahto Lobjakas

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: 'No quick fixes'

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: 'No quick fixes'

BRUSSELS -- Russia's invasion of Georgia caught the European Union and NATO unaware. It has exacerbated existing divisions within both organizations -- which may have been part of the putative Russian master plan in the first place.

As a result, as the German daily "Financial Times Deutschland" observes in an August 18 editorial, NATO and the EU may possess an even greater need for mediators than Georgia and Russia themselves.

NATO's Eastern European members would like to see the alliance adopt a tough stance, condemn Russia's incursion into Georgia as a flagrant breach of international law, break off at least some of the existing cooperation, and prepare to send military monitors to the area.

None of this is likely to materialize when NATO's foreign ministers meet for an unscheduled round of talks in Brussels on August 19. Instead, the alliance will, by all accounts, warn Russia to stick to the terms of the cease-fire negotiated by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy early last week.

'Gray Areas'

However, Sarkozy is increasingly coming under fire for leaving a number of "gray areas" among the terms of the cease-fire, as "Le Monde" puts it in an analysis. The most controversial among those are the precise geographical limits of the "additional security measures" the cease-fire says Russian peacekeepers will be entitled to enforce. Much will depend on the final extent of the Russian withdrawal of troops, scheduled to begin on August 18.

France also alienated the EU's and NATO's Eastern European members when Sarkozy said after a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow on August 12 that Russia is entitled to protect the interests of Russian-speakers beyond its borders.

The United States has come out strongly in support of Georgia, but has made it clear it is not prepared to countenance a direct military confrontation with Russia. Britain has aligned itself with Washington, and the foreign secretary, David Miliband, will travel to Tbilisi after the NATO meeting.

Germany will play a key role in shaping both NATO's and the EU's long-term responses. Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi at the weekend that Georgia will "one day" join NATO. But Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Social Democrat coalition partners are united in their belief that the dialogue with Moscow must go on.

Under the leadership of Germany, NATO and the EU are likely to stick to the logic of their approach so far -- which is based on the assumption that keeping Moscow talking will provide more leverage than attempts at its isolation.

No Quick Fixes

This is clearly the view of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the probable Social Democrat challenger to Merkel in the 2009 elections. In an interview with "Welt am Sonntag" on August 17, Steinmeier warned there can be no "quick fixes" for the West's problems with Russia, such as breaking off the ongoing EU-Russia partnership talks or blocking Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.

He sees both the EU-Russia partnership and WTO inclusion of Russia as serving the West's interests, possibly even more than they do Russia's own.

The same applies to the NATO-Russia Council. However, the alliance is sending Moscow one modest signal of displeasure by delaying the next meeting of the council. In another signal, NATO officials say a planned meeting of NATO ambassadors in Tbilisi on September 15-16 will take place as scheduled.

The August 19 meeting is not expected to discuss Georgia's future relations with NATO beyond affirming in general terms the pledge made by alliance leaders at their Bucharest summit in April to include Tbilisi at some unspecified time in future.

However, even officials and analysts sympathetic to Tbilisi appear to agree that the war with Russia will have inevitably delayed Georgia's work toward meeting NATO membership criteria.