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NATO's U-Turn On Russia Bound To Be Seen As An Embarrassment

  • Ahto Lobjakas

"Russia is a global player, and that means that not talking to them is not an option," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels on March 5.

"Russia is a global player, and that means that not talking to them is not an option," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels on March 5.

International diplomacy is never an exact science. But rarely has post-Cold War history seen an equation as out of balance as that which emerged on March 5, when NATO decided to resume full diplomatic contacts with Russia.

NATO broke off relations with Moscow on August 19 in the wake of the five-day Russian-Georgian war, suspending indefinitely meetings of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC).

The alliance took great pains at the time to explain its outrage.

NATO foreign ministers adopted a declaration saying Russian military action in Georgia was "incompatible with the principles of peaceful conflict resolution set out in the Helsinki Final Act, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the Rome Declaration [launching the NRC in 2002]."

The ministers continued: "We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual. We call on Moscow to demonstrate -- both in word and deed -- its continued commitment to the principles upon which we agreed to base our relationship."

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said NRC meetings "would be placed on hold until Russia adhered to the cease-fire, and the future of our relations will depend on the concrete actions Russia will take to abide by the…[August 12] peace plan."

That plan -- mediated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- committed both Russia and Georgia to withdrawing their forces to pre-conflict lines.

On the day the Sarkozy plan was agreed -- August 12 -- de Hoop Scheffer told journalists in Brussels after an emergency meeting of NATO's ambassadorial North Atlantic Council that "[i]t is very important that all parties go back to what is called the status quo ante -- that is, the status quo as it existed on the 6th of August."

But this has never happened.

'Not Talking...Is Not An Option'

Thousands of new Russian troops remain entrenched in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Moscow has begun talks with both self-proclaimed republics about the establishment of permanent military bases.

It is also arguable that Russia has taken no real steps to return to the principles it has pledged to uphold with NATO.

Yet on March 5, de Hoop Scheffer felt able to announce a reversal of the decision taken in August on the grounds that "Russia is an important player. Russia is a global player, and that means that not talking to them is not an option."

De Hoop Scheffer said the situation in Georgia would be discussed at upcoming NRC meetings, and that Russia has indicated its agreement.

It can be argued that events have overtaken NATO and that other, more crucial, priorities now top the alliance's agenda.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made that case in Brussels on March 5, saying the alliance needs to reorient itself to face "the new threats of the 21st century." She said the United States believes that "those threats in the future are more likely to come from regimes and terrorist networks than from nation-states in the immediate vicinity. Therefore, we want to help Europe to be prepared."

But coming after just seven months, the U-turn on Russia is bound to be seen as an embarrassment.

'Into The Garbage Can'

Russia itself was certainly quick to exploit the situation, with its NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin telling reporters in Brussels on March 5 that it had taken the alliance a long time to reach "the correct position" and throw "into the garbage can" the slogan, "No business as usual."

NATO could certainly have done more to soften the blow for Georgia. As things stood, the decision to revive the NRC seems to have caught Georgia off guard. Tbilisi had to scramble to set up an extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Georgia Commission on March 5 in a bid to consolidate its position.

Also, as the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after the March 5 meeting, it took a spirited effort by his Lithuanian colleague Vytautas Usackas to persuade NATO ministers to instruct de Hoop Scheffer to issue a strong statement in support of Georgia as he announced the resumption of ties with Russia.

Clinton also expressed support for Tbilisi on March 5, saying NATO's door will remain open to both Georgia and Ukraine. But there was precious little evidence of movement in that direction on March 5. NATO also failed to revisit the promise it made in August to assist Georgia in rebuilding its civilian -- and possibly also military -- infrastructure.

Ahto Lobjakas is a correspondent for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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