(CNSNews.com) – Ahead of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers to review the question of membership for Ukraine and Georgia, leaders of the two former Soviet republics are stepping up appeals for a positive decision, but with little signs for optimism.
Visiting Germany on Thursday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared that not offering his country a NATO membership action plan (MAP) “will send the wrong signal to the wrong people.”
Two days earlier, he told a conference of NATO lawmakers in Valencia, Spain that “attributing the status of candidate is not a technical question, it is a strategic choice” for European countries to make.
And Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, in an interview with the London Times, also urged NATO members to resist pressure from Moscow and grant MAP status to Ukraine.
But few western European countries are expected to risk antagonizing Russia, a major source of oil and natural gas which has shown itself willing and capable of using its energy supplies as a political lever.
And the United States, which championed Georgia’s and Ukraine’s cause at a NATO leaders’ summit in Romania last spring but was unable to win over skeptical Europeans, wields less clout now that the government is in transition.
At the summit in Bucharest, divided NATO leaders put membership plans for Georgia and Ukraine on hold, but they promised to review the issue when foreign ministers meet in Brussels on December 2-3.
Since that pledge, the arguments cited by MAP opponents led by Germany – unresolved territorial disputes and low levels of public backing for NATO membership – have only been strengthened by events.
The brief war last August between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia highlighted the fact that territorial disputes remain both unsettled and explosive, a situation exacerbated by Moscow’s subsequent decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and another rebel region of Georgia, Abkhazia.
In the other NATO aspirant, Ukraine, ethnic Russians make up almost a quarter of the population, and polls show that the majority of them oppose NATO membership. Many of those Russians live in Crimea. The area was formerly part of Russia, and nationalist lawmakers in Moscow have been pushing for the Kremlin to reclaim it, raising the specter of yet another unresolved territorial dispute.
Providing further ammunition to Germany and other skeptics is Ukraine’s political instability. A split between Yushchenko and his Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has triggered a snap parliamentary election on December 7.
Although Yushchenko and Saakashvili have pointed to Russia’s invasion of Georgia to support their argument for the importance of expanding NATO to include the two countries, if anything it is likely to have made the Europeans more leery of angering Moscow.
On Nov. 10, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that neither Ukraine nor Georgia would be ready to join NATO “in the foreseeable future.”
Against that background, reports emerged that NATO members were investigating the possibility of NATO offering the two countries some kind of roadmap other than a MAP.
The MAP program is a process that prepares candidates for membership while helping them to make political, military and other reforms needed before they can become fully-fledged members.
On a visit to Europe last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that some countries had joined NATO without going through MAP, and said there were “various pathways to membership.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday that the U.S. position on a MAP for Ukraine had not changed.
Georgia’s ambassador to the U.N., Irakli Alasania, told reporters on Monday that he expected President-elect Obama would be supportive, as support for “Georgia and its NATO aspirations is bipartisan in the U.S.”
But after Obama and Saakashvili spoke by phone the same day, the Georgian leader’s press service made no reference to the NATO issue, saying only the two had discussed future bilateral relations, U.S. support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, and the importance on continuing reforms.
While Saakashvili and Yushchenko try to shore up support, Russia continues to make its position clear.
Although Russian reaction was relatively muted – “calmly negative” in the words of one defense minister – when nine Soviet successor states or former Warsaw Pact allies joined NATO in 1999 and 2004, a newly assertive Moscow under Vladimir Putin is determined to prevent any further eastward expansion.
On a visit to NATO member Turkey on Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov warned that Saakashvili’s aspirations to join the alliance could lead to conflict “more serious” than the war in August.
Employing a different tactic, Russia on Thursday announced that it was giving permission to Germany and Spain to transport supplies to their forces in Afghanistan across Russian territory. Germany and Spain are among the NATO members least supportive of the Georgian and Ukrainian MAP bids.
Meanwhile NATO officials themselves have been suggesting that the alliance can have it both ways.
Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer spoke in Valencia Tuesday in favor of the right of former Soviet states to determine their own future – but at the same time said that NATO would not “choose between good relations with Russia and further enlargement.”
During a visit to Hungary Thursday, NATO deputy assistant secretary-general Aurelia Bouchez said that the alliance “should not make a choice between NATO enlargement and Russia, as we need both.”