NATO Expansion Talk Rekindles Old Debate For Russia
With the the issue of expansion provoking new tensions, Russia and NATO now find themselves in much the same situation as they did in the 90s, when the Atlantic alliance started considering how to bring former Warsaw Pact members into its fold, and in 2004, when the Baltic states joined NATO.
In the days after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania officially joined NATO, four years ago this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow with the alliance's secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Putin was largely dismissive of the alliance's expansion efforts. "Life proves that this mechanical enlargement [of NATO] does not help us respond effectively to the main threats we face today," Putin said. "This expansion cannot and could not prevent the terror attacks in Madrid, nor help us resolve problems in the reconstruction of Afghanistan."
But Putin skirted around the reality of life that irked Moscow the most -- the Baltic states had successfully made the break from Russia's sphere of influence, despite the Kremlin's fierce objections.
Now the current efforts of post-Soviet countries Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO are again being met with staunch resistance from Russia. And Moscow's tactics appear to fit well with the pattern of opposition it employed before former Soviet satellite states in Central Europe (Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic) first made the jump to NATO in 1999, and in 2004, when NATO touched even closer to home by inviting the Baltics and other former communist states (Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria) to join.
A Foreign Policy 'Bluff'?
Andres Kasekamp, director of the Tallinn-based Estonian Foreign policy Institute, says Russia's reaction toward NATO's expansion in the Baltics "was very similar to the reaction we see today, when we are talking about extending the Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine."
"From our perspective, it seems like the same sort of bluff that they have been using in their foreign policy to scare off the West all the time," Kasekamp said. "This didn't fortunately work in the case of the Baltic States, but still works rather effectively with some of our Western European friends."
Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, for example, recently told the "Financial Times" that by extending membership offers to Ukraine or Georgia, NATO would cross a "red line" for Russia -- a turn of phrase similar to those used before the Baltic accession.
Kasekamp says Russia's aggressive rhetoric has remained the same, citing Moscow's references to "retargeting Russian missiles to the Baltic States; or remilitarizing Kaliningrad; beefing up the number of troops, or ripping up the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty -- which they now have done, of course."
The highly charged rhetoric subsided soon after the Baltic states formally joined NATO. But today's Russia may not repeat recent history. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal "Russia In Global Affairs," says Europe would be wrong to assume that Russia's bark is worse than its bite.
"I am aware that there is a certain viewpoint in Europe that says that, 'well, Russia was always against it. Russia was against Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Then it was against Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia'" joining NATO, Lukyanov said. "But in the end, it could not do anything, and was simply reconciling with the inevitable -- accepting the fact."
This time around, Lukyanov says, things might not be so straightforward.
Firstly, he says, Russia has strong cultural, linguistic, and ethnic ties with Ukraine -- much stronger than with any other country that has sought integration in NATO. On top of this, Russia and Ukraine still maintain military-technological cooperation that dates back to Soviet times. Therefore, Moscow perceives the prospect of Ukraine's incorporation in NATO as particularly painful.
A Stronger Russia
With regard to Georgia, Russia holds strong leverage in the form of the two breakaway republics that it backs, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Perhaps most importantly, Lukyanov notes, today's Russia contrasts sharply with the weakened state it found itself in in the 1990's. "In general, this is a difficult comparison, as the Russia of 1999, 2004, and 2008 are slightly different countries," he said. "Now Russia behaves differently, it has different potential, and, what's most important, the general [geopolitical] situation in the world, to put it mildly, is not the most positive one -- which is not because of Russia's politics."
Some Western European states appear reluctant to irritate a resurgent Russia. France and Germany, for example, have argued that the time is wrong to offer Kyiv or Tbilisi a Membership Action Plan -- a key step toward eventual NATO membership -- at the alliance's annual summit this week.
As Estonian analyst Kasekamp notes, both Russia and Western European powers are keenly aware of Russia's newfound leverage.
"Russia has been very fortunate with the high price of oil, and the fact that the United States and the Western Europeans, because of the Iraq was, have been split," Kasekamp said. "And the U.S. has been preoccupied with its mess in Iraq. So, in other words, that has given Russia room to maneuver, and to play a more important role on the world stage again."
However, Kasekamp sees little that Russia can, or will, do to stop sovereign states from joining NATO.
"We should not really be worried about them wanting to do anything dramatic, or drastic, because most of the Russian elite have bank accounts in the West, and are very interested in the affluent life which their oil and gas reserves provide them," he said. "So I don't think that Russia is actually interested in a new Cold War as such -- even though the rhetoric seems to be going in that direction."
NATO Divided On Expanding Alliance, But Moscow's Stance Is Clear
Albania and Croatia are set to receive formal invitations to join. Macedonia is hoping to follow suit. And Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics that now have Western-leaning governments, are looking to receive Membership Action Plans (MAP), the first step toward becoming full-fledged NATO members.
Outgoing President Vladimir Putin will be present at the Bucharest events, even as NATO-Russian relations are under heavy strain.
For Russia, NATO expansion is a worrying development -- particularly when it involves members of its own post-Soviet neighborhood. Moscow views the MAP ambitions of Kyiv and Tbilisi with deep suspicion, as Vladimir Litovkin, an independent military analyst, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.
"NATO-Russia relations today are at a low point in many respects. And I think it is not only the fault of Russia, but also the fault of NATO," he says. "It doesn't always hold an independent NATO position; it mainly follows the course set by the United States, which sees Russia, if not as an adversary, then certainly as a rival gaining strength."
Line In The Sand
Heading into Bucharest, the NATO allies appear divided on Ukraine and Georgia, with Germany and France opposing granting MAPs, in counterbalance to the United States.
Few expect the divide to be resolved by the close of the Bucharest summit. But Russia, which has already twice endured the ignominy of its former republics and Warsaw Pact allies entering the Western military alliance in 1999 and 2004, isn't taking any chances. The Kremlin has been waging a nonstop press campaign to remind NATO and the world that a friendly gesture toward Kyiv and Tbilisi may cost them dearly in Moscow's goodwill.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, told Reuters that Ukraine and Georgia's acceptance into NATO, if approved, would be a direct snub to Russia. "The realization of an 'open-door' policy toward Ukraine and Georgia will be a sign for us that the West has made its choice in favor of unilateral actions rather than forming trans-European institutions," he said.
Dmitry Medvedev, who becomes Russia's next president in May, said in an interview published last week that the situation surrounding Georgia and Ukraine is "extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security."
Foremost among Russia’s concerns are U.S. plans to build parts of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, both NATO members.
The United States maintains the shield is necessary to monitor missile movements in unfriendly states, such as Iran and North Korea. The Kremlin, however, sees the shield as a threat to its own security, and fears the system may be expanded to include elements in Ukraine and Georgia, potentially taking U.S. military equipment within kilometers of its own border.
A Problem Of Mind-Set
Aleksandr Golts, a military expert and editor of the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" online newspaper, says the real reason Russia is opposed to NATO expansion is more basic.
"I don't think, in fact, that this is a military problem, although Russia constantly talks of the military threat, of the construction of some sort of mythical NATO bases in Georgia and Ukraine," he says. "The problem here is one of foreign policy or, if you like, one of psychology."
In 2000, as Putin assumed the Russian presidency, one of Russia's foreign policies was to improve ties with its close neighbors. But the reality, Golts says, turned out somewhat differently, with colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine that saw pro-Western reformers ousting their Russia-friendly leaders.
"Ukraine and Georgia's desire to join NATO flies in the face of this policy," Golts says. "They have no desire to compete for the role of younger brother in exchange for cheap energy supplies. This is a sign of defeat for Russia's foreign policy, and that's what irritates the Kremlin more than anything."
All eyes will be on Putin, who is set to address the NATO summit at its close on April 4. Will he strike a conciliatory note as an outgoing leader, or repeat the fierce rhetoric of his 2007 Munich speech, in which he accused the United States of trying to impose its will on the rest of the world?
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has expressed hope that Putin will abstain from "unhelpful rhetoric" during his time in Bucharest. Many commentators believe the outgoing leader will in fact want to maintain a cordial tone as his two terms as president come to a close. Even after Putin's departure, however, Russia's opposition to a broader NATO is likely to remain unyielding.
Moscow Eases Sanctions On Georgia, But Rattles Sabers Over NATO
In tones reminiscent of, if not identical to, those of his predecessor, outgoing President Vladimir Putin, Medvedev told the "Financial Times" that Moscow was "not happy" about Tbilisi and Kyiv moving closer to NATO. "No state," he added, "can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders."
Medvedev, who made the remarks in the course of a wide-ranging interview, added that such membership bids are particularly "difficult to explain" when "the vast majority of citizens of one of the states, for example of Ukraine, are categorically against joining NATO, while the government of this state follows a different policy." (Public support for joining NATO is low in Ukraine, at close to 30 percent.)
For Ukraine and Georgia to enter the alliance, he said, "would be extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security."
Carrot Or Stick?
Medvedev's interview appeared the same day that Moscow allowed the resumption of flights and some sea transit between Russia and Georgia. Those flights had been banned as part of a series of economic sanctions imposed by Moscow on Tbilisi in October 2006 as relations between the two former Soviet states deteriorated.
Moscow suspended the flights and imposed a ban on most Georgian imports ostensibly as punishment for Tbilisi's arrest and deportation of military officers for alleged espionage. But most analysts say the conflict has deeper roots, and is related to Georgia's efforts to join Western institutions and leave Russia's sphere of influence.
So by resuming the flights, is Russia suddenly extending an olive branch, or just adding a curve to its usual hardball? Archil Gegeshidze of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies says Moscow is using a traditional mix of threats and enticements to ensure its influence over the tiny Caucasus state remains in force.
"Such an approach -- strictness on the one hand, and softening of the economic sanctions regime on the other hand -- is deploying the well-known carrot-and-stick policy," Gegeshidze says. "Through this, Russia is trying to maintain and prolong its influence on Georgia, and through such policies it keeps, or increases, Georgia's dependence on Russia."
Ukraine and Georgia are seeking a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), a crucial step toward membership, when the alliance meets in early April in Bucharest, Romania. The issue has proven highly divisive among the alliance's powerhouse members. Germany and France have expressed deep reluctance to risk irritating Moscow by offering a MAP to either Ukraine or Georgia. The United States, by contrast, openly supports both countries' bids.
The impasse has sparked speculation that the military alliance may use the Bucharest summit to offer a halfway measure that falls short of a MAP but nonetheless encourages the two membership-hopefuls. Daniel Fried, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told RFE/RL on March 20 that the debate is likely to continue up to and through the summit.
"It's hard from our point of view to say 'no' to an aspiring new democracy that looks at NATO as a way to help guarantee their sovereignty and at NATO as a bastion of common values," Fried said. "NATO enlargement has been a fabulous success -- it has helped consolidate freedom and stability in Central and Eastern Europe. We ought to build on that success."
The Kosovo Card
Russia is using every opportunity to remind the world that it strongly disagrees with such sentiment. Medvedev's remarks to the "Financial Times" are just the latest in a string of hostile warnings. On March 21, the Russian State Duma passed a resolution calling on the Kremlin to consider recognizing the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if Georgia joins NATO.
Russia has said that Kosovo's declaration of independence sets a precedent allowing separatist regions like these pro-Moscow provinces to seek statehood as well.
Gegeshidze calls the move part of an "unfriendly policy" ultimately aimed at weakening the resolve of Georgia's backers in the West.
"In order to prevent Georgia from getting even closer to NATO, Russia is using threats and blackmail -- as well as some practical decisions -- in trying to delay this process," Gegeshidze says. "It's trying to frighten Georgia, and alarm the West."
Russia, China Unlikely To Welcome Tehran Into SCO
Mottaki added that Iran wants to move from being an observing member in the regional grouping to being a full member.
Iran, India, Mongolia, and Pakistan currently have observer status in the SCO, while Afghan government officials have also attended meetings of the SCO as observers. The group -- established in 1996 as the Shanghai Five before changing its name in 2001 -- comprises China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
On March 27, SCO Secretary-General Bolat Nurgaliev, of Kazakhstan, welcomed Iran's membership bid and said it will not bring any "negative moments in relations with the regional and international organizations."
'Smart Move' For Iran
Vladimir Sazhin, a regional expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, says that seeking full SCO membership is a "smart move" for Iran, which he says would find "political and economic survival" by joining the regional organization.
Sazhin says Iran, which has a strained relationship with the West because of Tehran's controversial nuclear program, finds itself increasingly isolated in the international arena. "By entering the SCO as a full member," he says, "Iran first of all would get official and legitimate partners, including two important players, Russia and China."
SCO membership would also give Iran some degree of protection against threats from the United States. "Secondly, Iran wants -- under the SCO wings and as a full member of the group -- to get a guarantee against possible U.S. and Israeli [military] action against Iran," Sazhin says. "Here, I mean a guarantee against a possible, hypothetical military resolution for Iran's nuclear crisis."
But most experts say it is unlikely Iran will becoming a SCO member anytime in the near future. Although leading SCO members Russia and China have long given some support at the UN to Iran against U.S. and EU pressure aimed at curtailing Tehran's nuclear program, experts say Moscow and Beijing would not risk precipitating an open confrontation between the SCO and Washington and Brussels.
Concern About Group's Direction
Turaj Atabaki, a professor of Middle Eastern and Central Asian history at Leiden University in the Netherlands, tells Radio Farda that Russia and China would not jeopardize internal relations within the SCO and the group's status by accepting Iran as a member.
"China and Russia -- the two main SCO members -- will try to prevent the SCO from becoming an active anti-Western and anti-American organization," Atabaki says. "Therefore, the two countries are concerned that Iran's presence [in the group] would possibly take it in a different direction [that could] result in regional conflicts and confrontations between the East and the West."
Sazhin, of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, agrees. He says Mottaki's statement in Dushanbe about Tehran joining the SCO was nothing more than wishful thinking on Iran's part. "I believe Tehran has not yet consulted with Russia or China about making such an announcement in Dushanbe," he says, "because obviously Moscow and Beijing have a lot reservations" about Tehran becoming a member.
According to Sazhin, both Moscow and Beijing realize that Iran -- as a full member of the SCO -- would try to create "a split, if not outright animosity" between the Western permanent members of the UN Security Council on one side and Russia and China on the other.
Experts say Russia and China would find themselves in an uncomfortable position if Iran put forward its candidacy for membership at the next SCO summit in Dushanbe later this year. The organization would also be obliged to give an official response to Tehran's request.
The SCO currently has a moratorium on expanding its membership. The group has only accepted one new member -- Uzbekistan -- in 2001.
Furthermore, if Iran's apparently unrealistic aspiration to join the SCO would be granted, it could be followed by a membership request from Pakistan, which has also expressed its willingness to join the SCO and enjoys China's support.
But including Pakistan without also accepting India as a member would be problematic for the organization. The SCO has in the past encouraged India to become a member of the organization but New Delhi has not formally expressed such an interest. It is yet another reason why Iran is unlikely to gain membership soon.
Counterbalance To NATO?
The SCO members and observers -- which comprise 25 percent of the Earth's territory -- together form the world's largest producer of energy and a very formidable bloc of economic and military power. The SCO leaders have stated that the organization has no plan to become a military bloc and that the alliance is not directed against any other state or region.
Nevertheless, many observers believe the group was created chiefly as a counterbalance to NATO and the United States, particularly to prevent Washington from intervening in areas near Russia and China.
At the Astana summit in 2005, the group urged the United States to set a timetable for withdrawing its troops from SCO member states. Shortly after the meeting, the Uzbek government asked U.S. forces to leave the Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan.
Allowing Tehran to use Russia and China to exert similar power on the United States is not something the SCO's controlling members are likely to approve in the near future.