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US faces resistance to NATO path into Georgia, Ukraine
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 22 - 03 - 2008

The United States faces west European resistance to a last-minute drive to set Georgia and Ukraine on a path to NATO membership at an alliance summit next month despite Russian opposition, NATO diplomats say.
President George W. Bush said on Wednesday he would urge the 26-nation defense alliance to begin the process for the former Soviet republic of Georgia at the April 2-4 summit in Romania.
“I believe that NATO benefits with a Georgia membership. I believe Georgia benefits from being a part of NATO. And I told the president it's a message I'd be taking to Bucharest soon,” he said after talks with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.
NATO diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Washington is pressing the same case for Ukraine. Bush is due to visit Kiev on the eve of the summit.
However, they said that when alliance foreign ministers met on March 6 in Brussels, 11 west European countries including France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Portugal spoke against giving Kiev and Tbilisi a “Membership Action Plan” (MAP) at this time.
The debate with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was so divisive that ministers agreed not to discuss it in public, an official who was present said.
Germany has since publicly voiced its reservations, arguing that priority should be given to solving “frozen conflicts” in two Russian-backed breakaway Georgian regions and to building public support for NATO in Ukraine.
“It is important that in all future NATO member states the population should be in favor of that process for accession,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said after talks with Russian leaders.
“The responsibilities of NATO member states include the responsibility that they should be free of conflict,” she said.“What's the point?”
Russia is opposed to NATO membership for former Soviet republics. It regards the spread of the alliance on its borders as an infringement on its sphere of influence.
Moscow has not made clear whether President Vladimir Putin would attend the Bucharest summit as planned if the two countries, whose democratic revolutions infuriated the Kremlin, were given MAP status.
The former Soviet Baltic states, which joined NATO in 2004, are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the moves towards Georgia and Ukraine.
Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip told a recent news conference with Latvian counterpart Ivars Godmanis in Tallinn: “Both of us support MAP status for Georgia and Ukraine.”
The United States says MAP is no guarantee of NATO membership. Countries can take years to complete the necessary reforms and preparations to join the alliance.
US officials are telling allies privately that it would be better to approve the decision before President-elect Dmitry Medvedev takes over from Putin in May, rather than leave the issue hanging over NATO-Russia ties, a NATO diplomat said.
Washington and Moscow are working in parallel on an agreement between Bush and Putin covering a range of arms control issues, including the contentious question of missile defense. The White House appears confident that a NATO embrace for Kiev and Tbilisi need not compromise such an accord.
On the other side of the argument, German Foreign Ministry political director Volker Stanzel told a Brussels Forum conference: “What's the point of insisting on this precise year for giving MAP to Ukraine and Georgia?”
NATO officials said one possibility was to give both aspirants an “action plan” without the word “membership”, setting out a series of preparatory meetings, visits and steps with the pledge of a review at the next NATO summit in 2009.
They note that due to two years of political upheavals, Kiev has yet to complete many of the required military reforms. There are also practical problems because at least 40 percent of Russian armaments production goes through Ukrainian factories.
But most west European allies, accustomed to last-minute US initiatives on the eve of alliance meetings, have been more discreet about their misgivings than the Germans.
Bush stunned some allies at the last summit, in Riga, in 2006 by deciding on his way that Serbia should be admitted to NATO's Partnership for Peace, reversing US demands that Belgrade must first hand over key war crimes suspects.
Despite deep Dutch reluctance, no one ultimately went against Washington's wishes.
Saakashvili is counting on Bush's “unwavering support” for Georgia's NATO aspirations to do the same trick this time.
“We've heard today everything we wanted to hear from the leader of the free world,” he said at the White House. __


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