U.S. Senate approves NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine

Tension in Russia-U.S. relations increased even more as the U.S. Senate approved a bill providing support and funding for Georgia and Ukraine’s membership to NATO. Both Georgia and Ukraine border Russia. The bill was approved by a U.S. Senate majority last week. The bill also supports future NATO membership for the three Balkan states, namely Albania, Croatia and Macedonia. In 2008, the U.S. would allocate $10 million for Georgia; $3.6 million for Macedonia; $3.2 million for Albania; and $3million for Croatia to prepare the countries for NATO accession. The bill was proposed by Richard G. Lugar, U.S. Senator (Rep.) for Indiana, a 75-year-old veteran member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Senator Lugar said that “the bill will enable Europe, the U.S. and NATO to expand a freedom and security area.”

The bill was already approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 6. Now the bill is to be sent to U.S. President George W. Bush for signing into law. The tenant of the White House may as well find the timing of the signing rather bad.

“The White House is currently far too busy with domestic problems, upcoming presidential election and Iran. Regarding the latter issue, I’d say that strengthening cooperation between the U.S. and Russia would benefit U.S. interests a lot more than fighting over Ukraine and Georgia,” said Nikolai Zlobin, director for programs on Russia and Asia with Washington-based Institute for Global Security, in an interview to Vremya Novostei. Zlobin admitted that the bill approved by U.S. Senate was ostentatiously anti-Russian in nature. “The resolution sends a clear signal to the regimes in Ukraine and Georgia: stick it out and don’t be afraid of Moscow for America will give you a hand,” Zlobin added.

According to Zlobin, many U.S. experts believe the stance somewhat lacks in clarity and wisdom. On the other hand, one should not expect that U.S. Congress would indulge in overly profound strategic consideration at the very beginning of its session, which coincided with the start of presidential race. “From the political point of view, the integration of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO would be seen as part of an effort aimed at restricting Russia’ strategic influence in Eurasia,” Zlobin said. “However, it’s s pretty unclear how the move could strengthen America’s security, and have an impact on the global security and stabilization,” Zlobin added.

Georgia entered the phase of an “intensive dialogue” with NATO in the fall of 2006. Georgia expects to join the Alliance’s Membership Action Plan late 2007 or early 2008. “The decision taken by U.S. Senate is very important because it will surely influence the position of all the other NATO member states,” said Konstantin Gabashvili, chairman of the International Relations Committee of Georgian Parliament, in an interview to Vremya Novostei. “The process of Georgia’s integration into NATO becomes irreversible,” Gabashvili added. The authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia express concern over a rapid pace of Georgia’s integration into the Alliance. Stanislav Lakoba, secretary of the Security Council of Abkhazia, said March 18 that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was “well-aware of the fact that he will join NATO without Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

General Vladimir Belous, a senior fellow with the Center of International Security at Global Economics and International Relations Institute under the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that “you won’t find consensus even among Ukraine’s powers that be on the issue of integration toward the Alliance, whereas the Georgian authorities are simply following in Washington’s footsteps when it comes to foreign policy.”

In light of the recent developments, there is yet another tough problem facing Russia: What is going to happen to the breakaway unrecognized republics of South Ossetia and Abkazia when Georgia joins NATO? Many residents of the above republics have been already granted citizenship of the Russian Federation. “These days Russia would have serious leverage when holding talks on the future of those self-proclaimed republics if Kosovo had been able to formally separate from Serbia. Under the circumstances, Moscow will have to hold lengthy talks to protect the interests of the Russian citizens who constitute a majority of the population in the unrecognized republics,” Gen. Belous said.

“Georgia shouldn’t take any steps aiming to regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia as quicklyas possible sothatNATO’ssecurity umbrella could be used for holding them fast alongside,” said Shalva Pichkhadze, chairman of Georgia toward NATO, a nongovernmental organization. “We shouldn’t make haste in a situation when Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still a part of Georgia de jure. On the contrary, Georgia’s integration into NATO can only encourage a peaceful settlement of these conflicts. It will be easier to resolve the problems because NATO will certainly take part in the process of negotiations; thus, the influence and role of Russia will be decreased,” Pichkhadze said. “However, Georgia will take a few more years to move toward full integration. We will probably start working to join the Alliance through the Membership Action Plan in 2009 at the earliest,” added he.

Ukraine’s leaders – President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich – have not made any comments in public regarding the bill passed by U.S. Congress. Anna German, an assistant to the Ukrainian president, called the document a “very good signal” for Ukraine though she stressed the point that the final decision whether the county should join NATO would not depend on U.S. government. “The people of Ukraine will decide the issue by voting at a referendum,” German said. Boris Bespaly, a representative of the pro-president bloc Nasha Ukraina (Russian for “Our Ukraine) called the bill a “positive impulse for the country.” On the other hand, Bespaly was skeptical that the move would speed up the integration process.

Head of the Ukrainian Institute for Global Strategic Studies Vadim Karasyev pointed out that politicians in Kiev had interpreted the bill rather as a forewarning signal sent by the U.S. to Russia than a means to speed up Ukraine’s entry into NATO. “It’s obvious that the deployment of missile defense systems, the creation of a ‘sanitation zone” in the Black Sea and Baltic Regions, and America’s commitment to NATO enlargement to the East make up a new U.S. strategy that aims to deter Moscow from pursuing it policies in the republics of the former Soviet Union,” said Karasyev. Besides, the government cannot but take into consideration that Ukraine’s membership to NATO can be decided only by a referendum depending on the current balance of power in this country, added Karayev.

Russia saw the bill as continuation of efforts by Washington to build a “unipolar world.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his concern about the activities of organizations which are actually a holdover e.g. NATO. “The activities of such organizations become a means of reproducing bloc policies in the modern conditions of real life. In actuality, there are bloc policies which are being pursued by member states against Russia within the framework of the Alliance. The deployment of U.S. missile defense system in East European countries is an example of such policies,” said Lavrov. Head of Russia’s Security Council Igor Ivanov said on Sunday that NATO’s enlargement would be against the interests of “both the Alliance and the countries which seek NATO membership.” Ivanov emphasized that Russia and NATO could start to discuss issues relating to the creation of missile defense and a joint effort to prevent various threats after “we get a clear picture of the Alliance in the present-day conditions.”

Speaking at a press conference in Kiev several days ago, U.S. Missile Defense Director Lt. General Henry Obering said that the elements of the U.S. missile defense system to be deployed in Poland and Czech Republic aimed to ward off an Iranian missile attack. He also suggested that Russia might take part in American missile defense efforts if the two nations agreed on expanding missile defense activities. Gen. Vladimir Belous is rather skeptical about an opportunity for Russia to join forces with the U.S. “Russia and the United States have been discussing plans to develop a joint missile defense system since the mid-1980s. A Russia-U.S. center was set up for the exchange of data on missile launches and mutual warning of a missile attack. The facility is the only result of cooperation maintained in this area. However, the center has been put into mothballs. In response to America’s increased activities near the Russian borders, Russia can only continue to further improve the combat capabilities of its long-range missiles, which can penetrate any missile shield,” Gen. Belous said.

Vremya Novostei

Translated by Guerman Grachev

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov