At their April summit in Bucharest, NATO leaders instructed their foreign ministers to review the bids by Ukraine and Georgia for membership action plans (MAPs) when the ministers meet in December. The U.S. government strongly supports positive decisions. Unfortunately, it has become clear that Ukraine and Georgia have no chance for MAPs at the NATO ministerial meeting.
Rather than pursuing a quest certain to end in diplomatic failure, Washington needs a Plan B. It should aim to shape a December outcome that sends positive signals to Kyiv and Tbilisi while making clear that NATO does not concede Ukraine or Georgia to Russia’s geopolitical orbit.
In Bucharest, most allied leaders supported giving Ukraine and Georgia MAPs, but Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy and a few others blocked the consensus sought by President Bush. They feared a negative Kremlin reaction and questioned the readiness of Ukraine and Georgia. They nevertheless agreed to a summit declaration stating “these countries will become members of NATO.”
Developments since Bucharest have only made the Ukrainian and Georgian MAP bids more problematic. The Russia-Georgia conflict in August has intensified worries about the Kremlin’s negative – indeed, hostile – reaction.
Political turmoil in Ukraine complicates Kyiv’s bid. President Yushchenko in October dissolved the parliament and has called for pre-term parliamentary elections. While Prime Minister Tymoshenko opposes elections, the odds are that, when NATO foreign ministers meet December 2-3, Ukraine will be in the run-up to elections. That means that NATO ministers will not know who will be the next prime minister, let alone whether he or she will support Yushchenko’s desire for a MAP.
As for Georgia, its case is now burdened by questions about the wisdom of President Saakashvili’s August 7 decision, however provoked, to send his army into South Ossetia. The speed of the Russian military response made clear that they were ready and awaiting a pretext, but the West’s confidence in Saakashvili has been shaken.
Merkel has already stated her opposition to MAPs for Ukraine or Georgia in December. Other European allies share this view. The Bush administration, limping along in its final days, lacks the diplomatic clout to force this issue.
Seeking MAPs in December, only to fall short, would not be good for Ukraine or Georgia or for their long-term NATO prospects. Likewise, it would not be good for the U.S. government to make a big diplomatic push to persuade allies to agree to MAPs – and fail again, as it did in Bucharest.
Washington thus needs a Plan B. The U.S. government should begin consulting now with Kyiv and Tbilisi on goals for December short of MAPs. The U.S. government should seek the following:
Secure language in the December NATO ministerial communiqué, and any parallel NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia statements, reaffirming that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO, and rejecting President Medvedev’s assertion for Russia of a sphere of “privileged interests” in the former Soviet space;
Build toward agreement that can be announced in December on a series of practical actions to deepen NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgian cooperation, including increased exchanges and exercises;
Obtain agreement from NATO allies on steps to strengthen their bilateral links to Ukraine and Georgia; and
Work with NATO members who also belong to the European Union to secure EU commitments to deepen EU-Ukraine and EU-Georgia cooperation (these could be announced by the European Union at about the time of the NATO ministerial).
At the same time, Washington should also suggest that NATO consider a parallel dialogue with Russia on the Alliance’s enlargement policy. Sovereign states will always retain their right to enter into alliances of their choosing. But Russia has legitimate security interests in its neighborhood, and it desires to have those interests taken into account. Finding a mechanism that will respect Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty in general – and specifically with regard to NATO – while addressing Russian concerns will pose a challenge, but it is a necessary step for long-term stability in the region.
Washington, Kyiv and Tbilisi must accept that asking for MAPs in December is a recipe for defeat. They should adjust their sights accordingly and seek measures that would reaffirm the Euro-Atlantic community’s interest in Ukraine and Georgia, and make clear that NATO does not accept the Russian effort to draw a new red line through Europe.
The Biden administration has a pretty good idea of what it wants from Europe, which is to go along with their China policy. They are less clear about what they type of Europe they want. Ultimately, if Biden wants a Europe that competes with China he will have to change how the US thinks about the EU, strategic autonomy, burden sharing, and trade.