The World from Berlin Can NATO Afford to Anger Russia?

Should NATO expand to Russia's southern flank? The small country of Georgia insists it should be offered membership, but Europe isn't so sure. German commentators on Thursday argue that the trans-Atlantic alliance should avoid angering Russia.

Listening to the rhetoric coming out of Georgia these days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the upcoming NATO summit in Romania is a matter of war and peace. With the European-American military alliance pondering whether to issue membership invitations to both Georgia and Ukraine -- and having trouble reaching unanimity -- Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze turned up the heat on Wednesday.

"A 'no' in Bucharest will be very clearly seen by some people in Moscow as their success, and it will be very clearly seen in Moscow that it has indirect veto rights on NATO decisions," he told reporters in Brussels on a visit to NATO headquarters there. "A 'no' in Bucharest will have very, very threatening and negative implications for conflict resolution," he continued.

Still, despite Bakradze's warning, it is by no means clear that the April 2-4 summit in the Romanian capital will result in Georgia and Ukraine being offered a "Membership Action Plan," or MAP, the first official step toward full membership. Even though the United States, Canada and NATO members in Eastern Europe are in favor of Georgian and Ukrainian membership, a number of countries in Western Europe are against it. Germany is particularly nervous about how such a move might impact the EU's ongoing attempts to improve relations with Russia as President Vladimir Putin turns over power to successor Dmitry Medvedev.

There are also concerns in some European countries about weak support in Ukraine for NATO membership and about Georgia's ongoing conflicts with the renegade regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Indeed, Dimitri Rogozin, Moscow's ambassador to NATO, told SPIEGEL earlier this month that bringing Georgia into the NATO fold would be "a provocation that could lead to bloodshed ." He also warned that the two breakaway regions would never consent to joining the alliance. "If Georgia became part of NATO, it would lose these regions forever." Last week, the Russian parliament pressured President Putin to consider recognizing the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Georgian foreign minister on Wednesday said that the Bucharest summit was a "test case" for the alliance and warned that NATO's "open door policy" -- which clears the way for European democracies to join -- is at stake. "From all our experience with the Russians, the most effective policy with (Moscow) is a policy based on principles, not on appeasement."

In addition to Georgia and Ukraine, three Balkan countries -- Croatia, Albania and Macedonia -- are hoping for membership invitations next week. Macedonia's entry into the alliance, however, depends on its finding a new name  acceptable to Greece. The latest suggestion in a long string of monikers is "Republika Makedonija-Skopje." Commentators in Germany on Thursday take a closer look at the issue of NATO expansion.

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"It is completely understandable that Tbilisi is doing all it can to push its way under the NATO umbrella. But it is not at all a good idea for the Georgians to transform the upcoming summit into a day of reckoning. Because one thing is relatively clear: Neither Georgia nor Ukraine will be granted a Membership Action Plan (at next week's meeting)."

"The majority of Europeans have other concerns than to surround Russia militarily. Rather, they are urgently trying to establish a healthy working relationship with their huge, energy-rich neighbor. To achieve that, Europe is willing to take Russia's geopolitical wishes into account. That is not a sign of weakness, rather one of political intelligence. A Russia that is bound to Europe as a partner -- with all the economic and political benefits that would result -- is much less of a danger than a Russia surrounded on all sides (by NATO). Georgia too would benefit from the reduced threat."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The granting of a Membership Action Plan to both Georgia and Ukraine has only been postponed, not abandoned. After the discord surrounding the Iraq war, a number of European members of NATO see no reason to do any favors for outgoing US President George W. Bush. They would rather wait and see how Bush's successor stands on the question of expanding NATO to Russia's southern flank. Should the next US president be in favor of such an expansion, then the Paris-Berlin faction within NATO would have a powerful trump card they could leverage into concessions from Washington in return."

"Postponing the decision on NATO's next eastward expansion has more advantages than disadvantages. Not the least of which is the chance to take a closer look at whether the entire project (of expansion) makes sense. Georgia has proved itself in recent years to be a loyal ally of the US. But whether the West is prepared to risk conflict with Russia for the small land in the Caucuses is a question that needs to be closely analyzed."

-- Charles Hawley, 12:10 p.m. CET

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