The NATO foreign ministers' decision on December 2 not to offer Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine should not have surprised anyone. Nor should their reaffirmation of the provision enshrined in the final document of the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest that those two countries will at some unspecified future date join the alliance.
But the fact remains -- and was stressed by both NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- that both Georgia and Ukraine still fall short of basic NATO standards in terms of both political reform and military readiness.
Moreover, the Russia-Georgia war in August over South Ossetia has raised serious questions about Georgia's commitment to NATO principles. The statement adopted at the NATO foreign ministers' previous meeting in September, while affirming support for Georgia's territorial integrity and condemning the disproportionate Russian military response, at the same time delivered a stern rebuke to the Georgian leadership, stressing that "we remind all parties that peaceful conflict resolution is a key principle of the Partnership for Peace Framework Document."
Translated from diplomat-speak into plain English, that reads "The use of heavy artillery against civilians asleep in their homes in Tskhinvali just hours after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced a unilateral cease-fire was a crude violation of our basic ground rules, and one we cannot overlook."
Equally, if not more damaging to Georgia's NATO aspirations was the spectacular ineptitude of its armed forces, which proved anything but battle-ready. The country's two crack U.S.-trained brigades were serving as part of the international peacekeeping force in Iraq during the August war. According to a new International Crisis Group report, "the [Georgian] armed forces and military infrastructure sustained heavy damage during the Russian invasion, revealing flaws in planning, supply, coordination, air defense, and combat communications systems which contributed to quick demoralization of the troops," who abandoned the strategic military base in Senaki without firing a single shot.
Several dozen rank-and-file servicemen reportedly deserted, as did a handful of senior officers. Military infrastructure, including the military airfield at Marneuli in southern Georgia that Turkey had modernized in line with NATO standards, was badly damaged; up to a quarter of Georgia's 240 main battle tanks were destroyed. Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili has estimated the total material damage at $250 million.
The question of whether and when Georgia and Ukraine will be offered a MAP has been left open. Instead, both countries will be required to fulfill annual reform programs that will be formulated within the framework of the NATO-Georgia and NATO-Ukraine commissions. That approach will enable NATO to monitor closely Georgia's progress in redressing the political shortcomings that Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer publicly identified during his visit to Tbilisi in mid-September, including the lack of media freedom and of an independent judiciary.
The decision to withhold MAPs does not, however, mean that NATO expansion is dead. On the contrary, Croatia and Albania will almost certainly be formally accepted as members at the April 2009 NATO summit. Macedonia has completed the reforms outlined in the MAP it received in 1999: the sole remaining obstacle to its admission to NATO is its still-unresolved dispute with Greece over the country's name.
But barring a visionary decoupling of the Georgian and Ukrainian membership bids, which is improbable in light of the very limited support for NATO membership among the Ukrainian population at large, no further NATO expansion is likely over the next five to six years, meaning before the end of Saakashvili's second presidential term -- assuming he is not voted out of office in a preterm election before that date.
Liz Fuller is commentary and analysis co-editor at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL