The enlargement of NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine could become the most dangerous spoiler in relations between Russia and the west next year. It would also set the new US president off to a bad start. If NATO’s foreign ministers were to decide in December that the two former Soviet republics were ready for the membership action plan and if Russia retaliated by freezing its relations with the alliance, that would create a lose-lose situation for everybody—for NATO, for Russia and, ultimately, also for Kiev and Tbilisi.
An already nationalistic Russia would fall prey to its fear of being encircled again and it would dangerously isolate itself from the west. The alliance, in turn, would revert to its 20th-century raison d’être—containing an increasingly hostile Russia—instead of focusing on more crucial tasks, including its adaptation to the new security challenges. This would further exacerbate the rifts within the European Union over its Russia policy.
But in a different scenario, could Georgia’s and Ukraine’s legitimate aspiration to join the alliance turn a potential spoiler into a win-win situation for both NATO and Russia?
Yes, it could, but only if both sides show political courage. Contrary to today’s received wisdom, Georgia’s and Ukraine’s wish to join the alliance could provide the right conditions for two positive developments: NATO could at last shake off its legacy as a cold war and anti-Russian alliance; and a new mindset could take hold in Russia, involving a vision of security based on co-operation, not on competition or on spheres of influence.
How can this be achieved? A strategy based on three elements could work. First, the US, NATO, Russia, the EU and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe should forge a new compact jointly to manage security threats in their common neighbourhood, which stretches from Ukraine, through the Caucasus to Central Asia (an area whose geostrategic importance has grown as a result of the conflict in Afghanistan). The group of these organizations would share responsibility for combating common threats in the area, ranging from terrorism to Islamic fundamentalism, to drug-trafficking and organized crime. They would also commit themselves to finally resolving the frozen conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia has been resentful of the west since the end of the cold war, claiming that it is unfairly treated as a junior partner and demanding formal recognition as an equal. A new security compact would grant Russia that status: the sharing of power between Russia, the EU, NATO, the US and the OSCE would go hand in hand with shared responsibility for “securing security”. The new compact should complement these institutions, not replace them.
Second, within this new co-operative security framework Russia would shelve its opposition to Georgia and Ukraine accessing the membership access plan. In fact, if NATO becomes part of a larger, co-operative security framework in which Russia is an equal partner, Moscow should have nothing to fear from Georgian or Ukrainian membership. Indeed, Moscow would benefit from the fact that NATO membership would encourage its two neighbors to become more responsible regional players. Russia would thus boost its legitimacy in the eyes of the “new” Europe, which still mistrusts it and sees it as a sovereign democracy bent on denying sovereignty to others.
Finally, in return for Russia shelving its opposition to the membership access plan, both Georgia and Ukraine would commit to negotiating new bilateral pacts of friendship and co-operation with Russia to consolidate trust.
Implementing such a strategy depends on both the west and Russia showing the political will to do so. In just over a year we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the end of the cold war. What better way could there be to dispel the tensions between Russia and the west than to work together in addressing the common challenges of the 21th century? A US-Russia-NATO-EU-OSCE summit and the signing of a new Eurasian security charter could help to consign this hangover from the past to the archives and allow us to start afresh. It is high time that happened. A reformulation of the terms of security co-operation between the west and Russia in their common neighbourhood would also bode well for future co-operation in other hot areas, with Iran and Afghanistan heading the list.