After meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Paris on March 02, 2015, French President Francois Hollande announced, “at present, France maintains the position that countries aspiring to become NATO members should be declined.” The NATO Secretary General’s visit was intended to discuss security challenges facing the Alliance both in the east and south.
The statement triggered a wave of heated discussion in Georgia, from alerts of red lights on Georgia’s integration process, to pro-Russian forces swiftly building upon the statement, to valid concerns regarding NATO’s adaptability to handle current security threats.
Statements like the one of President Hollande or previous statements by US President Barack Obama, have been used as convenient levers by some camps in Georgia to advocate a different trajectory for the country. For example, by Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement party, which has ties with Putin’s United Russia party and describes Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration course as a pack of lies used by government to fool the electorate. There is also an increasing number of Russia funded NGOs, who use these kind of messages to orchestrate a powerful chorus of propaganda against the EU and NATO.
Albeit the public’s unwavering support for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, public support should not be taken for granted against the backdrop of this activated Russian soft power.
On the other front of the security landscape, the statement of President Hollande unveils the West’s divided stance on what former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called “the most serious crisis in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
The statement raised a key question as to whether NATO has managed to adapt its strategy to the new security realities, and whether leaders in Europe apprehend the actual risks of such statements. Presumably, President Hollande intended to decrease tensions with Russia, or was following the logic of NATO enlargement risks amidst heated relations in the region. Or one could suppose that President Hollande was trying to please the French electorate against the backdrop of the increasing popularity of the far right in France.
Should either be the rationale behind the statement, trepidations over the Alliance’s strategic vision to the crisis persist. The major cause for alert is the radical difference in vision and goals and consequently the nature of actions between the West and Russia. What the West considers prudence, Russia sees as the weakness of the West and therefore a window of opportunity to push further. Pausing the enlargement processes in order to avoid further escalation with Russia may in fact cause the escalation and be counterproductive to NATO’s intentions.
Previously, supporting NATO enlargement was at the center of U.S. policy regardless of Russia’s stern opposition, which was present at previous enlargements as well. And each enlargement was justly concurrent to security adjustments. Washington was a leading force encouraging the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999; Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Slovakia in 2004; and Albania and Croatia in 2009. The persistence of NATO principles signaled Moscow the uncompromising nature of red lines for the Alliance. Consequently, it was after receiving NATO membership that former Soviet satellites stabilized their relations with Russia. The enlargements proved to contribute to the development of a broader European security architecture, enhancing stability and security for all. The success of previous enlargements further justified ‘open door policy.’
In contrast, what we see today is a lessened leadership over the enlargement process and differed statements from leaders warranted by vigilance towards Russia’s vision of NATO and its enlargement. This has, first and foremost, jeopardized the fundamental principle that no third country has a veto over NATO enlargement. Making decisions in line with the Russian power parade makes the crisis a handy tool for Moscow to stop ‘unwanted’ developments.
The first such message was received in 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were denied a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in order not to provoke Russia. Moscow took advantage of the mindfulness of the West and engaged in a war with Georgia, where it occupied Georgian territories and recognized the independence of Abkhazia, Georgia and South Ossetia, Georgia.
NATO’s gaffe was further aggravated by considering the 2008 Russo-Georgian war as an isolated case and re-launching business as usual with Russia shortly. Western attempts to engage Russia in constructing the European security architecture and launching a “re-set policy” did not prevent Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Notwithstanding the 2014 sanctions on Russia for the Ukraine war, which by no means should be underestimated or discounted, the West clearly shows a slow reaction in contrast to Russian movements.
Current security threats and the Ukrainian crisis have been at the center of discussions of the Brussels Forum of German Marshal Fund, where there have been varied responses -- between calls for providing Ukraine with heavy weapons without which it is impossible for Ukraine to defend itself, to calls for accommodating Russia. As the debates continue, and until there is yet no unified response with regards to enlargement, and as long as there has not been a pronounced leadership, Russia continues to receive the dangerous message that Europe is divided. Russia interprets this message as room to push further.
From recent history, and judging from recent statements, the West has not drawn the lesson that by appeasing Russia, they risk empowering Russia.
 On March 26, 2014, President Obama stated that “neither Ukraine nor Georgia “are currently on a path to NATO membership.”