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NATO Foreign Ministers Unlikely to Push Georgia, Ukraine Membership

Interviewee: Robert E. Hunter, Senior Adviser, RAND Corporation
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 25, 2008

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Robert E. Hunter, who was U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during the Clinton administration, says he does not expect NATO foreign ministers to enlarge the alliance to include Georgia or Ukraine at the next meeting in December. Given the strong Russian objections to the enlargement, "I don't think anybody wants to run the risk of giving the Russians a pretext to do what they did against Georgia. Nor do people want to pretend that Ukraine is anywhere near ready to join NATO. Nor are NATO countries ready to give a security commitment to Ukraine." He expects efforts will be made to enlarge ties short of NATO membership, however.

The NATO defense ministers recently concluded a meeting on Ukraine. The regular NATO foreign ministers meeting will take place December 2-3 in Brussels. Since we've just had a new U.S. president elected, will anything get done at this foreign ministers meeting?

They have an agenda, which starts off with Afghanistan, where both the outgoing and incoming U.S. administration have put  a very high priority on increasing the number of effective troops on the ground. The Europeans understand that President-elect Barack Obama, at least in terms of what he's said so far, will be putting pressure on them to increase the number of forces they have in Afghanistan, and to reduce the number of what we call "caveats,"  that is, limitations on where forces can actually be deployed. This will come, of course, at the same time that Obama will try to build a new and more positive relationship with the Europeans. But the meeting in Brussels will deal first and foremost with Afghanistan. The other issue will be the relationship to NATO of Ukraine and Georgia.

Let's first start with Ukraine and Georgia. When we last talked in the first week of September, the fighting in Georgia had just stopped. Since then Georgia's been a real irritant in Russian relations, not only with the United States but with Western Europe. What do you think is going to happen at the NATO meeting? Will there be steps taken to bring Georgia into NATO, which would drive Moscow to distraction?

The allies do have a requirement to demonstrate that Georgia is a legitimate part of Euro-Atlantic institutions, and also, at the same time, to send a message to Russia that whether or not there was provocation for what it did in Georgia and South Ossetia, its performance there was a gross overreaction. Its behavior was unacceptable and Russia needs to move from the nineteenth-century Russian way of doing business, to the twenty-first century way of doing business with the rest of the world. So the first thing NATO has to do is to continue its reassurance to Georgia that it is not alone. Ukraine, however, in many respects is more important. Georgia is an out-of-the-way part of the world, which no one in the alliance, we discovered last summer, is prepared to defend. Ukraine, by contrast, is in Central Europe. It is on the classic invasion routes to and from different countries there, and it is very important that the Russians understand that doing something similar to what they did in Georgia, or even a good deal less, would call into question the fundamental understandings that were worked out in the last fifteen or so years, since the end of the Cold War.

But the Russians have also made it clear that they really wouldn't sit tight for Ukraine to be invited into NATO, haven't they?

At the moment, no one really sees Ukraine or Georgia coming into NATO. At the NATO summit meeting in Bucharest last April, U.S. President George Bush was pushing for NATO to offer the so-called Membership Action Plan, or MAP, to both Ukraine and Georgia. MAP is one of those baby steps in the direction of NATO membership. Many of the allies, probably a majority, balked at that. Not just because of worry about the potential reaction from Russia, but also because of a widespread understanding, first, that Ukraine is having lots of internal problems. In Ukraine, NATO membership is not something that is particularly popular.  And would countries really be willing to fight for Georgia or for  Ukraine, under circumstances of foreign aggression? In Georgia's case, the answer is clearly no. In Ukraine, how do you convince the Russians that the answer is "yes" without actually doing things that might make a Russian intervention more likely? And that would include bringing Ukraine prematurely into NATO. So, there isn't much enthusiasm for its joining except for some of the theologians who don't believe that one should yield on anything the Russians object to.

So what's likely to happen, a sort of generalized statement?

"I don't think anybody wants to run the risks of giving the Russians a pretext to do what they did against Georgia. Nor do people want to pretend that Ukraine is anywhere near ready to join NATO. Nor are NATO countries ready to give a security commitment to Ukraine."

As you mentioned, there was the  NATO defense ministers' meeting with Ukraine in the context of the NATO-Ukraine charter, something I negotiated back in 1997. This was an effort, without doing anything, to show that yes, we care about Ukrainian independence. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to the meeting, even though he hadn't been expected. He underscored once again Ukraine's right to be part of  Western institutions, and that every country should have a right to choose its own institutions. He said nothing about MAP, he said nothing about NATO membership, but his remarks were meant to  bolster  the relationship. I suspect what's going to happen at the Brussels meeting is not the offer of MAP for either Ukraine or Georgia, but something I call a functional MAP. Give them cooperation and all of that, just call it something else. I don't think anybody wants to run the risk of giving the Russians a pretext to do what they did against Georgia. Nor do people want to pretend that Ukraine is anywhere near ready to join NATO. Nor are NATO countries ready to give a security commitment to Ukraine.

About half of the population of Ukraine are Russian speakers who really don't particularly want to be in NATO.

On top of that, there are a lot of people in Ukraine who are still focused on their internal problems, who don't see an engagement of NATO as being particularly helpful to them. On the point you just mentioned, Nikita Khrushchev was a native Ukrainian. In about 1954, when he was Russian Communist Party leader and premier, he gave a birthday present to Ukraine by transferring the Crimean region from Russia to Ukraine. It didn't matter at the time, since Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union. But in the Crimean region, those are Russians. Real Russians! Not Ukrainians. So, if I were a Ukrainian, far better to have a relationship with the European Union, and get the economic benefits, than to cause difficulties with Russia in regard to NATO. Particularly when [NATO] allies wouldn't honor defense commitments in the first place.

Beyond Georgia and Ukraine, could we talk about Georgia's overall relations with the United States and Europe?

Let me just mention that a part of what's going on with Ukraine and Georgia has to do with Russia's place in the world, with its desire to be taken seriously. And its desire to be seen as, if not an equal to the United States, as a player with the United States. President Dmitry Medvedev, talking on November 5 in his state of the union address, said that if the United States were to go forward with antimissile weapons and related complexes in Poland and the Czech Republic, he might have to consider putting nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad. Since that was the day after Obama was elected, that was taken as a negative shot across the bow. He then said, in effect, at the Council on Foreign Relations meeting on November 15, "Oh come on, that was just an accident of timing. My speech finally got ready. I'm looking forward to much better relations." But the fact is, they have chosen a couple of issues where they believe they have some leverage to try to say to the United States, "You have to take us more seriously." They would be insane to move against Ukraine in any serious way, because on that, there would be unanimity about a collapse of trust in Russia and its capacity to act in the outside world. In regard to the antimissiles, frankly, most of the allies would just as well wish that issue went away, and the Poles and the Czechs would wish it would go away as well.

When we talked in September, you said that Russia was really the big loser out of the Georgia venture, even though militarily it came out ahead.

I believe that. And compounded are the global economic crisis, the collapse in the price of oil, to less than 50 percent [of its peak around $147 a barrel]. And a loss of something like a quarter trillion  dollars just by the oligarchs. At a time when Russia needs the outside world, they shot themselves in the foot.

Let's jump back to Afghanistan. NATO has how many troops there now?

There are about 57,000 altogether.

The U.S. has about 30,000?

We are more than 50 percent of the total number. They are both within the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF], and Operation Enduring Freedom [OAF]. which is a strictly U.S. operation which is run by the U.S. Central Command. Altogether, we're about 55 percent of all the troops in the country, with some 18,000 in the ISAF, and 15,000 in the OEF.

And the United States  is now committed to increasing its troop levels in Afghanistan as it withdraws brigades from Iraq?

That is correct. President-elect Obama is, if anything, prepared to transfer a few more troops there than the Bush administration. But they're on the same page.

Recently, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan talked about possibly inviting the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, to have peace talks with him. There's been rumblings about this for some time. Does NATO get into this topic at all?

Obviously NATO countries have what we call a "watching brief." And the United States as a leader, and the most committed nation, will want to be deeply engaged in this. What has been happening, I think, is twofold. One, a recognition has grown for a couple of years now that the military effort alone can be ineffective. The military, if you will, is the shield,  but the nonmilitary are the sword. That is, better governance, reconstruction, and development. And here's where the West is really falling down. And frankly, in my judgment, the United States needs the Europeans to do a lot more. We really need their nonmilitary efforts more than we need their military.

The other development is a growing belief, whether it's valid or not, that in order to bring this thing to a reasonable situation, you need to start making a distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Taliban sheltered the al-Qaeda people, who then attacked the United States on 9/11, but they are different people. The question is: Do you start considering bringing the Taliban back into a reasonable kind of governance in parts of Afghanistan while continuing to prosecute the fight against al-Qaeda? This is now a very current idea being pursued by the Karzai government. For example, Saudi Arabia and a number of the allies are beginning to pick up on it. It also potentially helps with what is now the nub of the situation, the use of Pakistan as a sanctuary for operations into Afghanistan.

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