NATO’s Hour

Wall Street Journal
18 August 2008

Russia’s invasion of Georgia is a game changer. This war is part of a Russian strategy of roll-back and regime change on its borders. The more evidence that comes in, the clearer it is becoming that this is a conflict Moscow planned, prepared for and provoked — a trap Tbilisi unfortunately walked into. A core Western assumption since 1991 — that Moscow would never again invade its neighbors — has been shattered. As Moscow basks in its moment of nationalistic triumphalism, the West needs to take steps to prevent further Russian moves from spreading instability to others parts of Europe.

If they want to contain this crisis, NATO foreign ministers meeting here tomorrow need to focus on two strategic imperatives. The Alliance must take steps to reassure those members fearing Russian pressure that NATO’s mutual-defense commitments are credible and real. And ministers must consider speeding up enlargement plans to lock in stability in the Balkans and bring in Ukraine and the southern Caucasus.

The Alliance can start with a very simple but clear statement declaring that Moscow’s operation was an act of aggression incompatible with international law and the United Nations Charter, fundamental principles of security and cooperation in Europe as reflected in the Charter of Paris, and even the founding principles of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997.

But strong words are only a first step. So the Alliance should also reassure current members who feel threatened by Russia’s move and, above all, Moscow’s rationale for action. Since the Alliance began enlarging a decade ago, it has not conducted any defense planning against a possible Russian military threat to new members in Central and Eastern Europe or the Baltic states. We have unilaterally refrained from such steps partly as a confidence-building step toward Russia. New members have complained bitterly about this. It is why the Alliance is seen by many in the region as hollow. It is time to take this step as a prudent part of Alliance defense planning.

Furthermore, we need to back up such planning by making our security guarantees to existing NATO members more credible. In the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the Alliance undertook a political pledge to carry out commitments under Article 5 — which stipulates that an attack on one NATO ally is an attack on them all — by relying on building military infrastructure in the new member states and sending reinforcements to defend that country in a crisis, as opposed to the permanent forward deployment of large numbers of combat troops. We did this, again, to reassure Russia and because our military commanders believed we could afford this given Western military superiority. This commitment was political, not legal, and was contingent upon the maintenance of a benign security environment — diplo-speak for a peaceful Russia. NATO, however, unilaterally decided not to seriously develop that infrastructure or reinforcement capability. It is time to put into place the infrastructure, reinforcement capabilities and symbolic deployments we are fully entitled to as a stabilizing and confidence-building measure for new allies.

NATO also needs to reassure those partners likely to be the next targets of Russian pressure and possible aggression, first and foremost Ukraine.
This means rethinking NATO’s enlargement strategy. In the mid-1990s, NATO adopted an enlargement strategy based on integration and not as a strategic response to Russia. We consciously raised the bar and requirements for new members. Our focus was less on protection than on democratic reforms to help anchor these countries to the West. But we also consciously left ourselves the option of lowering the bar in the future if the security environment took a turn for the worse. It now has done just that, and we need to shift our criteria again.

Strategic reassurance should now come first. This means more robust NATO outreach and a fast-track approach to enlargement in the Balkans, Ukraine as well as the southern Caucasus. Ukraine is likely to be Moscow’s next target along with Azerbaijan, which holds the key to the viability of Europe’s trans-Caspian energy corridor. While many of these countries might not qualify under the criteria of the 1990s, they are strategically important for the West and at risk. We need to embrace them quickly in spite of their imperfections. That means granting them so-called Membership Action Plans and moving toward fast-track enlargement. We should not give up our goal of pushing for democratic reform in these countries. But let’s first help make them safe.

Leaders in these partner countries also have big decisions to make. In Ukraine, the NATO issue is part of the domestic battle for power. But it is time to put politics aside and be serious. European Union association agreements currently under debate are good for the country but will not shield Ukraine from Russian pressure and aggression. Opposition leaders publicly oppose NATO to score points, but in private many say they want it. They must now decide if they want to be part of the West. If parts of the opposition join a bipartisan consensus, the Alliance should move quickly to embrace Ukraine. In Azerbaijan, presidential elections are approaching. Azerbaijan is not a democracy and has its own “frozen conflict” with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. If Baku conducts free and fair elections and moves toward a democratic opening, and makes credible moves to make peace with Armenia, we should also be prepared to embrace Azerbaijan.

That of course leaves Georgia. Following this war, it will be years before Georgia again reaches NATO’s current criteria for new members.
Here, too, we need to change our approach and embrace a country whose survival is at stake, too. These new commitments, if undertaken, must be backed up by credible military planning and defense arrangements that deter Russia.

Last but not least, we should freeze the NATO-Russia dialogue in Brussels for the foreseeable future. If we are honest, this relationship has never become what we wanted: a channel for consultation and real cooperation. Moscow has walked away from many of its commitments in the Founding Act. It treats the NATO-Russia Council as yet another platform for its anti-Western strategy. Russian NATO Ambassador Dimitry Rogozin behaves like an old-style propagandist seeking to sow dissension in the ranks of allies. We have lots of channels to talk to Moscow. Let’s shut this one down until Moscow gets serious about doing business and not spreading anti-NATO propaganda.

The stakes are high. It is time for the kind of leadership and trans-Atlantic unity that will preserve our values, interests and security in a more dangerous world.

Mr. Asmus is executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center and in charge of strategic planning at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. These views are his own.