Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 57

Ahead of NATO’s April 2-4 Bucharest Summit, the alliance is preoccupied with maintaining the principles on which it interacts with aspirant countries. The core principles may be summed up as: the open door, membership action plans on the road to that open door, merit-based assessment of aspirant countries, and no external inputs into Allied decisions on membership or membership prospects.

The alliance as a whole is alert to the risk of compromising those principles in the event that Membership Action Plans (MAPs) are denied to Georgia and Ukraine in a manner perceived as deferring to Russia. Even Germany, the leading opponent of those MAPs within the alliance, seeks to avoid the appearance of rejecting those MAPs outright. Instead, Berlin’s tactic is to call for postponing the consideration of the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs.

While seemingly prepared to bear the onus of blocking those MAPs de facto, Berlin does not wish to be seen as compromising the alliance’s own principles. To defend its position and avert the risk of singularization, the German government has taken to describing its position on the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs as “not if, but when.”

That stance might avoid an open rift at the upcoming summit. “Not if but when” would help several European countries rally behind Germany’s position of blocking the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs without closing the door. Postponing the consideration of those MAPs could also be portrayed as not prejudging the aspirant countries’ merits. But it would be difficult to present such a postponement as anything other than deference to Russia. The German government itself invokes relations with Russia as a major reason for postponing consideration of the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs.

Off the record at policy conferences and occasionally on the record also, German officials argue that the presidential transition in the Kremlin opens a window of opportunity for improving the West’s relations with Russia. That opportunity should not be risked through such irritants as offering MAPs to Georgia and Ukraine, the argument runs. To avoid the impression of bending NATO principles, this argument disclaims a “direct linkage” of MAP policy with Russia policy. Whether direct or indirect, however, the linkage is plain to see.

Along the same lines, Berlin suggests giving Russia’s incoming president Dmitry Medvedev the chance to prove his intentions on internal and external policies during a certain period of time. Its duration is being variously suggested as one year or two to three years. This would vaguely describe the “When” element in the “Not if but when.” Meanwhile, the “If” element looms large because the German-led objections are meant to resist the two MAPs on substance, not just the timing.

Similarly with Berlin, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner regards Russia’s presidential transition as a window of opportunity for the West to forge a “common future” with Russia. “Unless we do so, the new world now taking shape will leave us behind,” he nebulously warns, urging a “more constructive dialogue with Moscow” (Le Figaro, March 19). The Quai d’Orsay quietly resists the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs; and (along with the National Security Council) it has also resisted a proposed visit by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to French President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the NATO summit.

The need to improve relations with Russia thus seems to become an argument for delaying the Georgian and Ukrainian MAPs. Whether empirically substantiated or simply wishful, the window-of-opportunity argument is being invoked by Berlin and Paris, which have conducted their own special relations with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Medvedev’s Gazprom.

Moscow takes a very different view of the window of opportunity in the near term. It deems it the last opportunity for NATO to integrate Ukraine and Georgia, before Russia grows stronger. According to Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, the proposed MAPs indicate that NATO is “trying to pick everything that is still easy to pick. They are in a hurry to do that while Russia has not yet demonstrated its full strength and potential. They are trying to snatch Ukraine and Georgia while we are still unable to show our might to the full. They well understand that this might is growing and are simply in a hurry to act before that takes place” (Russian Television Channel One, March 22).

“Not if, but when” is a formula for evading MAP decisions at the Bucharest summit behind a paper-thin consensus among NATO allies. An open-ended “When” can lead to indefinite procrastination without political responsibility for such procrastination. The “Not If” remains ambiguous as long as certain governments introduce extraneous linkages (“Ifs”) to MAP (see EDM, March 24, 25).

Even so, “not if but when” implies a positive step forward from outright blockage. But it requires far more clarity and commitment in order to lead to a positive decision at the Bucharest summit on the MAPs. This would entail agreement on a short time-frame for revisiting the issue — for example, no later than NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in 2009; and a clear understanding that the object of such rescheduling is approval of MAPs, rather than mere consideration thereof.