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April 2, 2008

The Wrong MAP for
Ukraine and Georgia

by Ira Straus

Much ink has been spilled over whether NATO will give Ukraine and Georgia a "membership action plan," or MAP, at its upcoming summit. The U.S. administration supports it; Angela Merkel of Germany, America's best friend in Europe, opposes it.

Merkel is trying to save America from a dangerous mistake, one potentially worse than Iraq.

It is not easy to dismiss Merkel with the usual smears – as anti-American, or as a Russian puppet – but still the attempts are being made. America should be thanking her instead. As chancellor of Germany, she has done more than anyone else to rebuild trans-Atlantic relations in the last three years. And as one of East German origin she has been blunt in talking back to Putin and supporting human rights against the Communist regime in China.

What Merkel did, in the speech that has aroused so much attention, was to remind NATO of two of the most basic conditions it had set in the 1990s for new members:

  1. "A country should become a NATO member not only when its temporary political leadership is in favor but when a significant percentage of the population supports membership."
  2. "Countries that are themselves entangled in regional conflicts can, in my opinion, not become members."

This means, plain and simply, that Ukraine and Georgia do not qualify, and aren't going to do so anytime soon – as a MAP would imply.

Merkel recalled the conditions in her own words. The actual NATO wording about the need for a solid majority of public support for joining NATO was stronger than Merkel's. Otherwise, the country, once inside NATO, would become a drag on the alliance. A new member would not be worth it to NATO in such conditions, just as it would not be worth it for NATO to walk into a new member's war.

Ukraine plainly fails to meet the first condition; Georgia plainly fails to meet the second. Neither gives evidence of having a prospect of meeting the conditions in any foreseeable future. As long as they proceed on a path of trying to get into NATO without and against Russia, the result has been to continuously reinforce the conditions that disqualify them. The whole issue would seem to be a non-starter.

Moreover, the harder Ukraine tries to join NATO on an anti-Russian basis, the further it pushes its public away from meeting the condition of wanting to join. For the pro-Western Orange leadership, pushing the NATO button has been a way of shooting itself in the foot. And the harder Georgia pushes the same way, the worse it exacerbates its problems with Russia and its own breakaway regions. On the evidence of the last few years, issuing a MAP and moving toward membership is worse than a non-starter – it would be self-defeating.

There is only one thing that could change this stark conclusion: since a MAP is not membership itself, it could – if worded in an unusual way, unlike all previous MAPs – lead Ukraine and Georgia to drop the anti-Russian orientation of their pursuit of NATO membership and stop shooting themselves in the foot. This is not, however, what the advocates of an immediate MAP have in mind.

It is a simple fact that a MAP is not membership; it is a roadmap of the path toward membership and the progress that has to be made along the way. As such, it is always tautologically possible to issue a MAP, even when membership is not seriously in contemplation. Proponents have argued for a "MAP now" on this basis.

However, in reality a MAP is issued only when membership is intended to be granted, and not too far off at that. Diplomatic moves like this are not made to lead countries on, they are made to prepare for full-scale commitments. A "MAP now" would not, then, be exploratory or hypothetical about membership, so it would not be innocent of risk. Rather, it would create momentum and expectations for NATO to proceed to offer membership, no matter how self-destructive that might be.

There is an additional risk. The usual, somewhat standardized NATO MAP does not focus on the two decisive criteria brought out by Merkel, which are what Ukraine and Georgia need to be brought to focus on. Instead it goes over a whole long list of criteria. It focuses on other, less relevant and less important criteria, including relatively technical ones such as the investments the countries need to make in reforming and modernizing their militaries along NATO lines. Such an ordinary MAP would fail to guide the two countries on a path toward reaching the core political conditions that they presently fail to meet.

In other words, it would be the wrong MAP, a false roadmap, a way of trying to sneak the countries in without resolving the real issues, taking them down a path, replete with difficult and expensive adjustments, that leads nowhere, or worse than nowhere.

At the end of the path, Ukraine and Georgia still would not qualify. NATO would face tremendous pressure to admit them anyway rather than leave them in the lurch. After all, it would be said, they accepted the MAP in good faith; they would have followed their MAP as well as most other new members have in recent years; they would have met most of the criteria while, like the others, falling shy on a few (the most important ones, in this case).

It would be added that Russia is against it, so it must be done. Failing to admit them, it would be intoned gravely, would reward Russia and encourage it to think it can do anything to them. This last argument is already being heard. In fact, it has become the main argument for both MAP and membership for Ukraine and Georgia. And MAP advocates generally equate the MAP with membership in this way, despite the formal argumentation that a MAP is possible at this time because it is not membership.

NATO would risk disaster if it did admit Ukraine or Georgia without prior resolution of the two basic problems Merkel fingered. The dangers are obvious and large-scale: in the case of Ukraine, putting NATO's internal health at risk; in the case of Georgia, risking walking into a war. Leaders in Washington seem blind to these dangers, but it is a self-imposed blindness.

The disaster with Georgia would be that of walking into an ongoing territorial-ethnic conflict with Russia. It is the sort of risk of outright war with Russia that for decades, during the Cold War, the West carefully avoided, knowing it bore the potential for our own annihilation. Have we forgotten about this danger? And even if we were to escape the worst and had only a simmering local conflict with Russia, would it really be wise for us to push Russia the rest of the way back to being our enemy?

The disaster for NATO from Ukraine would be that of taking in a country that could not be a good ally no matter how much its leadership wished to. It would be a deeply divided country, wracked by an instability that NATO membership would exacerbate. Most of its people do not want to be in NATO; the disaffected East is bitterly against it. It would weaken NATO. It would also weaken Ukraine's prospects for democratic development.

There is only one country in the world whose support for these countries' accession to NATO could make it a viable proposition: Russia. It is a paradox for those who want these countries inside NATO against Russia. For the rest of us, it is a basic reality, one that we need to understand and deal with.

Only after such a time as Russia-NATO relations have become good – good enough that they are not only no longer perceived by most people on each side as adversaries, but are perceived as genuine allies, reliably on the same side for the long haul – would the Ukrainian population agree to NATO membership. Likewise, only in such conditions would it be possible for Georgia to join NATO on terms not directed against Russia, presumably after having resolved its own conflicts with Russia.


Let us start with Ukraine.

The theorist for the self-defeating approach in Ukraine is a former foreign minister under Yushchenko. His policy line – which is also a line of domestic political argument – has run as follows: Ukraine should stop trying to balance its relations with Russia and the West, as it did under Kuchma. Ukraine should orient itself to the West and join NATO, and Russia should respect this choice. None of this suggests that there has been any thinking about NATO itself; it's all about Ukraine and its identity. In truth, it's not quite even about that. It's about the identity politics of those Ukrainians who take this position in a domestic political fight against the Eastern Ukrainians, who think of Ukraine's identity in a different way and are never going to fall into line against Russia. It is evident that they would like to get some respect and a sense of total independence from Russia. That, it needs to be recognized, is their personal problem; it may be harsh to say it, but it is a set of wishes that is doomed to go unfulfilled. The Orange leadership can sometimes, barely, win elections against the Eastern Ukrainians, but it has shown that it cannot thereby lead the country into solid public support for joining NATO – just the opposite. 

The proponents of this one-way line got their chance early in Yushchenko's presidency to try out their line in practice. What happened? The more Yushchenko pushed on the NATO issue, the more Eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans agitated against NATO, with mass demonstrations and a real consensus in their regions against joining NATO. His Eastern-based opponent Yanukovych regained some popularity instead of fading away, increased his voter share, and became prime minister. The East-West divide in Ukraine grew sharper. Western Ukrainians began to realize that forcing the NATO issue was ruinous for Ukraine. More and more Ukrainians turned against joining NATO – some polls reached 80 percent against. Current polls still show under 20 percent in favor of NATO.

Has anything been learned from the experience?  Or are we expecting someone to put Eastern Ukrainians through a transmogrifier and all come out as Western Ukrainians?

What the join-NATO-against-Russia line has meant in practice for Ukraine is to create trouble with Russia at every step along the way without ever getting to the goal; actually, the harder it's tried, the farther Ukraine gets from the goal. It does maximum damage to Ukraine (and everyone else) for minimum benefit. It doesn't serve Ukraine's interests, nor the West's; it can only be explained in terms of acting out some personal psychological issues vis-à-vis Russia.

There is only one country in the world that could ever convince Ukrainians to want to join NATO, and that country is Russia. Two scenarios present themselves. Russia could be so nasty to Ukraine that the Eastern Ukrainians finally blame Russia, rather than the Ukrainian nationalists, for the bad relations and start hating Russia as much as Western Ukrainians do. This is not likely. Alternately, Russia could itself join NATO. This scenarios is also unlikely, but at least it has some long-run potential and doesn't maximize damage along the way.

Every time the NATO issue has been pressed by President Yushchenko and the Ukrainian leadership, the public has turned further against joining NATO – and against Yushchenko as well. The frequent insistence by Yushchenko on this is one of the two main things that have nearly ruined the Orange Revolution (the other being the abandonment of Yushchenko's campaign promise to elevate the status of the Russian language). From the start of Yushchenko's rule, it gave a strong campaign issue to his opponents – a substantial, popular issue, one that the Eastern Ukrainian public has been very effectively mobilized around and aroused against. Every time NATO is pushed on Ukrainians, the political situation in Ukraine becomes worse and Ukraine gets further away from actually qualifying for NATO membership. The insistence on the NATO issue and the backtracking on the language issue were what wrecked the initial prospect, after the Orange Revolution, of isolating the anti-democratic forces and reconciling the East to the democratic revolution. It is what made possible the comeback of Yanukovych, after an initial period when it seemed he would fade away in the face of his discrediting as an electoral cheat. Ukrainians need solid relations on both sides, East and West; the Central Ukrainians know it, and the Eastern and Western Ukrainians each resolutely insist on a solid relationship for their own end of the geographical stick, giving the more sober Central Ukrainians the swing vote. Every time either Russia or the West presses too hard on Ukraine to line up against the other side, it loses in the subsequent Ukrainian elections. It seems we have learned nothing from the experience; we keep making the same mistake.

Yushchenko said March 27 that no NATO bases would be deployed in Ukraine if Kiev became a member of NATO. Why did he need to say this, when Ukraine's constitution forbids the establishment of foreign military bases in the country? Because people were mobilizing against the expectation of such a base. As Yushchenko put it, "Some people are spreading the fable that there will be a NATO military base in Sevastapol. There will be no base." In reality, NATO membership inevitably would mean such a base sooner or later; the only question is whether it would be one operated jointly with a Russia that would itself be intimately allied with NATO, or whether it would be directed against Russia and the large pro-Russian majority of the local population. Three weeks earlier, Kiev reportedly said it was giving up its bid for membership in the Western military alliance. Such is the inevitable backtracking that comes from pushing too hard to one side in a divided country. It is the opposite of a stable, reliable orientation to NATO. For Ukraine, the only way to have a stable, predictable Western orientation is for it to be a part of the very same balanced approach – oriented toward East and West at the same time – condemned by Tarasyuk. It is indeed possible for Ukraine to have a deep, entrenched, and reliable Western orientation, but only if Russia and the West work out a way to be on the same side, so that the Western orientation of Ukraine is no longer contradictory to its Eastern orientation.

What would an honest MAP for Ukraine read like? It would point in the opposite direction from a standard MAP. It would recognize the uniqueness of Ukraine's political situation and the inevitable, legitimate depth of its interdependence with Russia. It would accept the wisdom of a former Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.: the preferred scenario for Ukraine is to join NATO at the same time Russia joins, not without or against Russia. It would accept the wisdom of Yulia Tymoshenko, when she was being wise: that Ukraine cannot be a member of a different alliance than Russia, much less an opposite one. In practice, after issuing such a MAP, Ukraine might still get into NATO more quickly or more completely than Russia, but the way it would get there is by sincerely working to bring Russia in too. The unresolvable problem of the naval base at Sevastapol would find a natural resolution: it would become a joint Russian-Western-Ukrainian base under the NATO aegis. NATO, instead of exacerbating the problems between Russia and Ukraine and the West, would become a healing factor.


Now to Georgia. NATO membership for the country in its current condition – in two major ethnic and territorial disputes with its minorities and its neighbor – would risk considerably greater damage to the West than taking in Ukraine. It would be akin to taking in Israel as a member, without a prior peace settlement (something that does have its advocates nowadays; it is the sort of thing that makes me embarrassed to have raised the issue of NATO expansion in the first place in 1985-89). In the case of Israel, this would mean the U.S. and Europe taking on a very messy conflict with the Palestinians and a state of war with most of the Arab countries. In the case of Georgia, it would mean taking on even more – Russia, a nuclear superpower.

The NATO standard of prior resolution of ethnic and territorial conflicts was intended for precisely this situation: to make sure NATO would not walk into an ongoing conflict when accepting new members. It was a highly practical standard. One could imagine that it might, as an equally practical matter, be waived for a big new member that is engaged in a small conflict, but not for a small new member in a potentially huge conflict. It seems almost surreal that some of our leaders would forget this rule now, when the prize would be Georgia and the adversary taken on would be Russia.

We have a right to ask ourselves whether our leaders have gone crazy.

Moreover, the country to whose fight the West would be committing itself is a Georgia with a fiercely tribalist political culture, one that played a major role in creating the present conflicts under the extremist ethno-nationalist regime of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The pretense that it is all Russia's fault is false; it is immature of the West, an application of Cold War-style simplification to a post-Cold War problem. It seems some people have spent their lives reducing all issues involving Russia to a matter of blaming Russia, and now they don't know any better. However, NATO has for more than a decade had as its aim to project democracy and conflict resolution in the former enemy space, not to blame everything on one side, and to refocus globally on the security needs of the future, not to resurrect the Cold War with Russia. Applying NATO's true principles would mean continuing to urge Georgia to resolve its problems with Russia realistically. A standardized MAP would have the opposite effect of egging Georgia on. Nevertheless, there is an increasing tendency to invoke instead the "principle" of "standing up" to Russia by granting Georgia both MAP and membership, no matter what the costs or consequences.

The Vicious Circle in Western Thinking

Where is the logic in this? An innocent reader might think there is no logic, only madness. The innocent reader would not be entirely mistaken. There is, however, a method to the madness. The logic used is bad, but it has had a powerful resonance – powerful enough to hold in its thrall the minds of important actors in Washington and Brussels, leading them to overlook their own standards for NATO membership and the extraordinary risks they are running by flouting the standards. Why? Russia is against it, therefore NATO must do it.

That simple "therefore," that bare non sequitur, is what it always comes down to, no matter what the intervening terms in the argument. The intervening terms have been, variously, as follows: NATO's credibility is on the line, Russian imperialism will be encouraged if NATO doesn't proceed, Russia must not be allowed to divide NATO, Russia must not be given a de facto veto over any NATO internal decisions, Russia is the enemy NATO must unite against.

It is evident that these reasons will seem even stronger to their proponents at the end of a MAP process, if Georgia should be given a MAP this month. There would then be enormous pressure to follow through with membership, no matter how dangerous the act.

The argument for doing whatever Russia opposes is, upon examination, circular, and vicious in its circularity. Not only does it send us out of our way to spite Russia; it takes Russia's opposition to this spiting as the main reason to do it.

One of the characteristics of a circular argument is that it takes a deep hold on the mind and is hard to shake; the circle, once established in the mind, is impenetrable to fact or reason, and it can endure long after the original reasons for a few of the points along the circle have disappeared. This was why Gorbachev and his reforms were for years dismissed in the West – particularly, I have to say with some shame for my friends, in the very Atlanticist circles I have always frequented – as a "plot to divide and deceive the West." Then the Berlin Wall came down, and reality finally began to penetrate even the most sealed-off minds. Brent Scowcroft, an exponent of the divide-and-deceive line, made a dazed comment that it showed the changes were for real.

The vicious circle about Russia took hold in the decades when Russia really was the enemy of NATO and one of Russia's main plays in the diplomatic game was to try to divide the West. It was compounded by the fact that NATO, with its habit of requiring a front of unanimity for its every decision, was inherently fearful of being divided and rendered impotent by a single member country getting "peeled off" into disagreement with the majority. The blame for this was projected onto Russia, sometimes with reason, sometimes arbitrarily. In those decades, there were reasons for many of the concerns wrapped up in the circular argument; they provided the temptation for swallowing the circle whole. Western elites became, in this sense, paranoid, although they managed their element of paranoia with caution during the Cold War. They knew well the costs of the war going hot, and they would sometimes joke that we can be glad the Communists haven't endorsed motherhood and apple pie, or we might have to renounce those too. With the end of the Cold War, the caution faded faster than the circle. Today, 15 years into the era when NATO proclaims it does not view Russia as an enemy, the vicious circle endures. Whenever Russia indicates that it is not fully convinced by NATO's assurances of non-hostility, Western elites assume a tone of righteous indignation against Russia for its lack of trust in our word. Meanwhile it is still the case that almost every time Russia opposes a move NATO is contemplating, this is taken as a reason why NATO must proceed with the move without regard for any other considerations – neither its own standards or considerations of what is good for the alliance, nor Russia's considerations, some of which, if viewed without prejudice, would be seen to have merit. A disinterested observer might be forgiven for taking this as evidence that NATO is being deceptive when it denies that it is hostile to Russia. A more generous view would be that NATO is sincere – sincerely blinded by the vicious circle in its discourse.

Vicious circularity lends to a line of thought a peculiar kind of potency, in the sense of a determination to follow that line even if it means going straight off the deep end. Taken to its logical conclusion, the circularity of the standing argument in NATO about Russia is one that leads to a particularly deep end: it would direct NATO to march straight onward in any disagreement with Russia, up to and over the threshold of war.

This is not hyperbole; it inheres literally in the logic. Unfortunately, neither is it just an abstract conclusion about where the circular logic could in theory lead. In the case of membership for Georgia, there are all too many plausible scenarios by which it could actually come to war.

Georgia has several times come to fighting in its disputed territories, and several more times it has come to the brink of war with Russia over them. Its current president, whom NATO is told it needs to encourage with a MAP, is one who has reveled in brinkmanship with Russia. Far from needing to encourage him in this, the Bush administration has at times found a need to tell him to cool off. The risks from encouraging him are substantial. The risks of NATO committing itself to his front line are extraordinary. Westerners may reassure themselves with nice lines like "Russia isn't going to start a world war for Georgia, or for Ossetia, and neither are we," but it is scant consolation for a relation with endless possibilities for accident, misunderstanding, and escalation – a simmering border and ethnic conflict, numerous skirmishes, locals with little to lose, and plenty of self-righteousness on all sides.

What would an honest MAP for Georgia look like? It would point Georgia in almost the opposite direction than the boilerplate one. It would place front and center the need for Georgia to reach an enduring accommodation with its neighbor Russia.

People would, to be sure, complain that this was unfair to Georgia and gave Russia a "de facto veto" over its membership. A sincere NATO would ignore the complaint and write the MAP this way anyway.

It might add that improving relations with Russian would mean that Georgia would have to stop talking about joining NATO against Russia, as this talk only serves to keep relations with Russia inflamed. The path to joining NATO would be to pipe down about NATO. Georgia could also start talking about allowing joint Russian-Western bases on its soil, rather than about simply kicking out the Russian bases and giving unconvincing reassurances to Russia that they won't be replaced by NATO ones.

Furthermore, if NATO really wants Georgia to join, NATO itself has some remedial work to do with Russia. It should upgrade its talk about a possible eventual NATO membership for Russia, turning it from a pious phrase into something that can be taken seriously. This, not a Ukrainian or Georgian MAP, is the greatest single thing NATO could do to improve the prospects for Ukraine and Georgia to be able to meet the NATO membership standards. It would mean working out, in dialogue with Russia, realistic terms for an eventual Russian membership, "realistic" being defined as terms that would make it in the interest of both sides; figuring out which membership standards and Russian reforms are relevant to NATO's needs, and which reforms and adaptations on NATO's own side are needed for enabling NATO to function effectively when it includes Russia; and working out enough of a joint strategic doctrine to justify a close alliance.

Those who raise a hue and cry about a "Russian veto" forget that, in every previous case, third countries involved in a conflict with a candidate for NATO membership have been given the same capacity for obstruction or "de facto veto," since NATO has required the candidate to resolve the conflict prior to membership. NATO has balanced this by offering the third country or countries a realistic hope of either simultaneous or subsequent membership, too, thus dampening any impulse to drag out the conflict and obstruct its neighbors' membership. Romania did not inflame relations with Hungary and thereby obstruct Hungarian membership, partly because that would have put Romania's own subsequent membership in doubt.

Russia is the only third country that has not been accorded such civility. There has been a statement, to be sure, that membership for Russia is not excluded, but few people on either side believe that even this is sincere. Some leaders of new NATO countries have openly said they would oppose Russian membership in all circumstances – thereby already breaking their commitment, required of them as a condition for joining NATO, not to obstruct or veto other new members from the Partnership for Peace grouping – without any protest on the part of the old NATO-West. No effort has been made to figure out what a realistic MAP for Russia, one that would make Russian membership a benefit to both sides, would look like (I am not counting my own attempt, "A MAP for Russia," in NATO and the European Union: New World, New Europe, New Threats).

Paradoxically, a MAP for Georgia that accepts the supposed "Russian veto" – meaning the fact that the NATO standards on conflict resolution serve to give Russia, like all previous third parties, a de facto power of obstruction – is (a) the sole workable roadmap for Georgia to make its way into NATO, and (b) the sole way to avoid running in practice into an operationally deadly Russian veto. A Georgia that genuinely tries to resolve its issues with Russia in a realistic manner with reasonable compromises, not just demands, that respects the interests of the ethnicities that have appealed to Russia as their protector rather than merely condemning them as criminals and Russian agents, that ceases the habit of going out of its way to inflame matters with Russia – and that also grows out of the Jacobin authoritarian aspects of Saakashvili's rule, some of which have a lot in common with Putin's, including the undermining of free media and the practice of smearing the opposition as agents of foreign influence and destabilization – this would be a Georgia that a sober NATO could judge worthy of taking in, and that NATO might conceivably someday take in over Russian objections if the latter remained obstinate.

Honest MAPs could, then, be drawn up for Ukraine and Georgia. They would stress the need to develop better relations with Russia, to reassure and reconcile the Eastern Ukrainians and the national minorities of Georgia by practical compromises instead of lofty declarations, and for NATO itself to provide a realistic roadmap for Russian membership in the alliance, turning its declaration of openness to a future Russian membership into something better than a throwaway line along the path to letting other countries in. There would be no guarantee of a positive result for Russia, but it is the only way to a positive result for Ukraine and Georgia.

This is not, unfortunately, the kind of MAP that is intended by advocates of an early MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. That MAP would be given for the explicit purpose of spiting or "defying" Russia; it would be written in such a way as to allow the countries to proceed step by step down the path toward membership without ever satisfying the decisive criteria – improving their relations with Russia and with the important Russia-friendly sectors of their own countries. At the end of the path, NATO would be under enormous pressure to proceed with membership for unqualified countries and, therewith, to walk into self-inflicted damage internally and dangerous conflict externally.

It is fortunate, in these conditions, that Angela Merkel is opposing the MAP move. In Merkel we have an allied leader who is a true friend to America, one who has done more than anyone else to revive the transatlantic relationship in the last three years. Friends do not let friends make suicidal blunders. And she is trying valiantly to spare us such a fate. Let us hope she sticks by her guns. It will buy NATO time to get the MAP right. Until it does, far better for us all that there be no MAP at all.


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The author was one of the first to advocate expansion of NATO as a solution to post-Communist security problems, writing of this hypothetically beginning in 1985 and as a practical proposition beginning in 1989, when he was executive director of the Association to Unite the Democracies, an Atlanticist organization founded in 1939.

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