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Friday, 22 August 2008

22 August 2008

The shooting war in Georgia seems to have ended, thank God, but the war of words shows no sign of abating. I reckon it’s time to go back to basics.

So here are two, inter-related questions, which might help us to understand how and why this nasty, and potentially dangerously destabilising, crisis erupted. One: why is NATO apparently so determined to go ahead with the applications for membership from Georgia and Ukraine? And two: why are Georgia and Ukraine so determined to join?

Ask NATO why it wants to expand its membership to include an ever-growing number of countries in central and eastern Europe, and you’ll be told it’s by far the best way to encourage peace and security in the region. The preamble to NATO’s founding treaty, which was signed nearly 60 years ago, says its members “seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.”

True, Ukraine and Georgia are quite a long way from the North Atlantic, but the view seems to be that peace, security and democracy easily trump geography. Nations that feel confident about their own security are less likely, so the argument goes, to indulge in reckless military adventurism.

In Moscow, however, for obvious reasons, you’ll get a very different answer to the same question. Look at a map of Russia’s western borders: along the Baltic coast, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all members of NATO. As far as the eye can see, with the exception of Belorus, just about all the European countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc are in NATO. And now, to make matters even worse, to the south-west, along the Black Sea coast, Ukraine and Georgia are both hoping to be members of NATO soon. To many Russians, it looks suspiciously like encirclement.

NATO was Russia’s enemy for half a century. Over the past decade, there have been attempts to convert enmity into partnership, but not with any conspicuous success. (Yesterday, Russia announced that it’s suspending all cooperation with NATO, which could affect an agreement to allow it to transport through Russia non-military supplies for use in Afghanistan.) Russia doesn’t like playing second fiddle in someone else’s orchestra: you may have heard the senior Russian politician Mikhail Margelov on last night’s programme: “We are not children who can be seen but not heard … Russia is a player on the world stage.”

So how about the answer to my second question? Why do Ukraine and Georgia want so badly to join? Well, perhaps because being in NATO would make them feel safer. It’s never comfortable living next to a big and powerful neighbour – and the angrier that neighbour becomes, the less comfortable you feel. If I were a Georgian, I think I might have looked at how the world has changed over the past 20 years and concluded that I may well be a lot safer sheltering under the NATO umbrella.

Mind you, not all Georgians – or all Ukrainians – share their governments’ enthusiasm for NATO membership. There are substantial minorities (as there are in some of the Baltic states as well) who hanker for the days when they looked to Moscow for protection. What’s more, there are many millions of ethnic Russians, and Russian-speakers, scattered throughout what used to be the Soviet Union – and many, like Vladimir Putin, still mourn its passing.

So a final two questions for you. If democratically elected governments express a considered wish to join NATO, and if they fulfil the membership criteria, are there any grounds on which they should be refused? And is extending NATO membership in a way that risks increasing Russia’s sense of insecurity a good way to “promote stability and well-being” in the region? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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