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RUSSIA: In a Polite Battle With NATO

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Apr 16 2008 (IPS) - The recent NATO summit in Bucharest has shown that both western and eastern European members states have irreconcilable views on how to approach Russia: what the west sees as cooperation, the east calls capitulation.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit, which took place Apr. 2-4, highlighted divisions within the organisation, after countries such as France and Germany refused to grant Membership Action Plans, the first step towards full-fledged membership, to two of Russia’s neighbours, Georgia and Ukraine.

The Russian side has expressed worries that NATO’s unlimited growth, and extension of its operations outside the north Atlantic area indicate that a substitute for the United Nations (UN) is being established, endangering the significance of Moscow’s veto power at the UN security council.

NATO’s decision on Georgia and Ukraine could also be interpreted as a sign that Russia’s considerations will be taken into account by European partners, mostly western ones, that don’t agree with Washington’s geopolitical line, or see in Russia a possible force restoring a multi-polar world order.

Besides, West European countries feel that an isolated Russia looking for allies in Asia poses a greater danger to Europe.

But what seemed to some as Western Europe’s accommodating attitude towards Moscow was perceived in Eastern Europe as capitulating to Russian imperial ambitions, especially after Russian politicians and media called the summit a victory for Moscow.

In contrast, Western European observers were more bothered by U.S. President George W. Bush’s supportive visit to Ukraine shortly before the Bucharest summit, in what was seen as an attempt to put undue pressure on the alliance.

Europe needs stable Russian gas supplies, and is reliant on Moscow to successfully conclude NATO’s military campaign in Afghanistan, as European NATO troops want to establish a route to the country partly via Russia.

In spite of Russia’s expanded cooperation with NATO, Russia does not consider joining the alliance, and has its own ambitions to return to what it calls its legitimate role as a superpower. This is precisely what countries in the immediate vicinity of Russia fear.

“Eastern European countries are afraid Russia will return to its status as a superpower, and that it is gaining strength and influence, namely through its gas,” Hamberger Judit, analyst and historian at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs in Budapest told IPS.

Poland and other nearby countries consider Russia a potential or real enemy whose geopolitical interests should be thwarted.

“These countries, and especially Poland, have a completely different experience with Russia, there are centuries of feeling oppressed and attacked by the Russians,” the analyst said. “The closer these countries are to Russia, the stronger the fear that there could be a return to a similar situation as in the past.”

By expanding NATO to Russia’s borders, advocates of the anti-Russian view claim that besides weakening Moscow, any possible armed confrontation would shift eastwards.

However, Hamberger notes that the position of Eastern European countries towards Russia also depends on the orientation of their governments.

“Left-wing governments, such as the one in Hungary, are always less fearful of Russia, but when right-wing cabinets come to power they usually take a strongly Atlanticist (pro-U.S.) line,” she said.

NATO compensated Ukraine and Georgia by issuing a statement promising eventual membership, but in spite of the Georgian and Ukrainian presidents calling it a historical step, NATO supporters in these countries were deeply disappointed.

Pro-western sectors in Ukraine see NATO membership as a guarantee of Ukrainian independence, and link the issue to the question of the country’s national identity, as in their view joining the alliance would demonstrate Ukraine’s adherence to the values of Western civilisation as opposed to those of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticised certain NATO members and the leaders of Ukraine for trying to drag into the alliance countries whose populations disagree with membership.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was supportive of this view, and said a prerequisite for the aspiring countries should be a “qualitatively significant support for membership on the part of the public.”

There was no lack of arguments against offering Ukraine and Georgia membership prospects.

Kiev is politically unstable, plagued with oligarchic interests, has a large and obsolete army infrastructure, and the loyalty of its army and population towards NATO could always be put in question.

There were also abundant reasons not to offer Georgia any membership prospects: The existence of two separatist and pro-Russian regions in the country gives Moscow strong leverage over its small, southern neighbour.

With eastern Europe questioning the west’s commitment to freedom and democracy, Western Europe seemed more worried about the possibly explosive consequences of admitting a country involved in domestic or regional conflicts to the alliance.

But the summit was not just good news for Russia, because in December 2008 NATO will reconsider Georgia and Ukraine’s applications.

Moreover, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced during the summit that the alliance wanted to link its incipient efforts for a missile shield with Washington’s project to extend its missile defence system to Eastern Europe.

The project is opposed by Moscow, although recent talks with the U.S. on allowing some form of Russian participation in the project have cooled down the confrontational rhetoric.

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