Russia weary of NATO’s eastward expansion

Ever since America gained Georgia via the Rose Revolution in 2003, and then cemented her influence in parts of Ukraine through the Orange Revolution in 2004, Russia’s antagonism towards American influence in the post-soviet space has grown immensely. The conflagration between the two erstwhile adversaries is greatest over NATO’s attempts to include Georgia and Ukraine. America is eager to admit both countries into NATO and extend its security umbrella to encompass the highly vulnerable energy transit routes to the West from the Caspian Sea, and secure strategic locations in Russia’s near abroad. These vital locations will provide Western forces with invaluable access to Russia’s industrial hinterland, present a formidable challenge to Russia’s Black Sea fleet based at Sevastopol, and provide opportunities to dominate the Crimea and the Baltic Sea. Accompanying America’s NATO drive eastwards, is her considerable political influence in Georgia and Ukraine. Through her agents Saakashvili and Yushchenko, America has sought to neutralize and even push back Russian influence. America’s stranglehold over Georgia is far greater and deeper than Ukraine, and the brief war this summer has done very little to reverse this trend. The usurpation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia might have blighted America’s control over Georgia, but Russia’s inability to convert battle field gains into political change in Tbilisi is what really counts–” Saakashvili is still in power and in control.

The fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance and the outcome of the recently announced snap elections will eventually determine Ukraine’s political alignment either with America or Russia. Of the two countries–”Ukraine is more important to Russians then Georgia. For centuries, Russians have been taught that Kiev is the mother of Russian cities and this forms a strong psychological bond with ordinary Russians. The influence of Russia in Ukraine is strong, especially the Crimea where majority of the inhabitants are Russian and carry Russian passports. Furthermore, Ukraine is rich in economic and technological resources–” not to mention the deployment of the Black Sea Fleet–”which Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko refuses to renew the lease beyond 2017. Ukraine’s admission into NATO would be an enormous blow to the Russian federation.

Russia has watched with much trepidation, when on March 29 2004, NATO under US auspices admitted former WARSAW pact countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania into its fold. Now, Russia is apprehensive at NATO’s eastward push and American endeavors to establish hegemony in Russia’s near abroad. To counter this, the Kremlin undertook a combination of political initiatives and stern threats to dissuade Europe from backing NATO’s expansion. The curtailment of gas supplies to Europe, the withdrawal from the Treaty of Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, verbal threats aimed at European countries friendly towards America’s missile shield programme have yielded some success. At the April 2008 summit in Bucharest, Romania, NATO agreed to the accession of Croatia and Albania, but balked at offering accession membership to Georgia and Ukraine much to the annoyance of America. In fact, Germany and France opposed membership based on the fact that it would harm their relations with a resurgent Russia. Italy and Belgium supported them. Nevertheless, Britain and many of the Eastern European countries eagerly sanctioned America’s offer of NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine.

In August 2008, America manipulated the war between Georgia and Russia to overcome European disagreement towards Georgian and Ukrainian entry into NATO, as well as to goad Poland to sign up to its missile shield programme, which it promptly did. In the aftermath of the war, NATO hardened its stance against Russia and froze bilateral relations. However, cracks soon surfaced between NATO states on how best to deal with Russia’s objections towards Georgian and Ukrainian entry into NATO. Sarkozy’s original six point ceasefire plan contained no references to Georgia’s territorial integrity and ceded too much to Russia. Under US pressure, Sarkozy publicly tried to bolster demands for Russia to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity, but hitherto nothing concrete has happened. On 15th September 2008, in an interview with the Financial Times, the Head of NATO Mr. de Hoop Scheffer bitterly complained that Russia was permitted to retain a military presence inside the two breakaway regions ( based on point 6 of the Sarkozy plan). He said, “If the Russians are staying in South Ossetia with so many forces, I do not consider this as a return to the status quo,” he said. "The option of keeping Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not acceptable."

On the otherhand, US Secretary of state Rice and US Vice President Cheney visited both countries, and reiterated America’s support for NATO member ship. American agents Saakashvili and Yushchenko used Russia’s aggression in its near abroad, and its subsequent occupation of Georgia to magnify the Russian threat to Europe. But despite their passionate pleas, some European countries continue to eschew granting membership to these countries. On October 2 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to St. Petersburg and met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Merkel made it clear at a joint press conference that Germany would not only rebuff NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, but additionally oppose accession membership for both countries. In fact, Germany went much further than just resisting American demands for NATO membership and suggested that bilateral ties between Russia and NATO should be resumed. Speaking at the informal NATO defense talks in the Hungarian capital Budapest, on October 10 2008, German Defense Minister Franz Josef said, “If Russia respects the six-point plan, and this appears to be the case, then we should resume dialogue with Russia. That means the NATO-Russia Council should resume its work.”

As long as the opposition amongst Europe’s major powers remains steadfast against American demands to offer NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, it is very unlikely that both countries will be offered membership anytime soon. It should not be under estimated that whilst public opinion in Georgia is for NATO membership the opposite holds true for Ukraine. An opinion poll conducted in September 2008 by the Taylor Nelson Sofrez Ukraine agency showed that opposition for NATO membership grew after the recent conflict in Georgia. 63% of those polled said they were opposed to membership. This gravely complicates matters and when put together with Russian threats of retaliation against Poland and Czechoslovakia, it is understandable why old Europe is against such a move.

From Russia’s perspective, NATO cannot be trusted, and may eventually buckle under US pressure and extend its membership to Georgia and Ukraine. If this were to materialize, a security nightmare would unravel next to the Russian border. To circumvent such prospects, Russia has dug its heels in Georgia, deepened ties with Venezuela and instigated measures to prevent American domination of Ukraine. Should the upcoming election fail to rollback American influence in Ukraine, or if the America decides to wrest Ukraine away from Russia, then it is probable that Russia would invade Ukraine to protect its interests.