As NATO heads toward its summit meeting in Bucharest on April 3-4, the question of NATO enlargement — especially whether to give Membership Action Plans, or MAPs, to Georgia and Ukraine — has re-emerged as a contentious issue.
The two countries present different problems for NATO. The main problem in Ukraine is the low level of popular support for the alliance. This could be rectified if Kiev undertook a serious campaign to educate Ukrainians about NATO, as was done by some of the recent East European members such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, where support for NATO was also initially low.
In Georgia, the problem is more vexing. The main obstacle is the unresolved "frozen conflicts" in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared their independence in the early 1990s and which are supported by Russia.
Many European members fear these disputes could drag NATO into a conflict with Russia if Georgia becomes a member of the alliance. In a speech in Berlin on March 10, for instance, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany bluntly warned that "countries that have unresolved conflicts cannot become members."
Yet, making conflict resolution a precondition for Georgian membership would be a serious mistake; it would give Russia a de facto veto over Georgia's NATO membership and ensure that the conflicts remain unresolved.
For Moscow, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are useful tools for putting pressure on Georgia and blocking Georgia's entry into NATO. It thus has little incentive to see the conflicts resolved.
Admitting Georgia into NATO, in fact, would actually make resolution of the conflicts easier. With Georgia in NATO, Russia would have little incentive to keep the conflicts alive.
Russia's approach to the border treaties with Estonia and Latvia in the early 1990s provides a case in point. For years Moscow refused to ratify the border treaties in an attempt to block Latvian and Estonian entry into the EU and NATO. Once Latvia and Estonia became NATO and EU members, the issues lost their utility as instruments to achieve Russia's broader foreign policy goals and Moscow quickly proceeded to ratify both agreements.
Some NATO members also are hesitant to move forward with the Membership Action Plan for Georgia because they fear that in retaliation for Western recognition of Kosovo — an action Russia opposed — Moscow may formally recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. This is highly unlikely. It would stimulate stronger pressure for independence in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia — a development Moscow is eager to avoid.
This does not mean that NATO concerns about being dragged into a conflict with Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia can be dismissed out of hand. These dangers could be mitigated, however, by a unilateral statement by Georgia at the time of its MAP accession pledging to solve its outstanding territorial disputes solely by peaceful means.
Such a statement would reduce the prospect of NATO being dragged into an armed conflict over Abkhazia or South Ossetia, while holding open the prospects of peaceful reunification some time in the future if circumstances change, as provided for under the l975 Helsinki accords. This is particularly important in the case of South Ossetia, where the prospects for a peaceful settlement are more promising than in Abkhazia.
At the same time, NATO needs to revise the Membership Action Plan process. MAP should continue to be a tool to help aspirants improve their qualifications for membership, but it should not be seen as virtual guarantee of membership, as it is today.
Weakening the linkage between MAP and membership would give candidates a longer period to prepare for membership and provide an important interim form of association that would tie the candidates more closely to NATO without guaranteeing membership. Some participants in MAP might become members; some might not.
This would make it easier to manage many of the current anxieties about Georgian — and Ukrainian — aspirations for NATO membership while keeping the door to membership open over the longer term.
F. Stephen Larrabee holds the corporate chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation and served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter administration.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on March 27, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.