Ahead of a key NATO summit next week, the bids of Ukraine and Georgia to join the world's premier security organization are in rough waters – crowded out by priorities such as Afghanistan and missile defense and opposed by influential members such as Germany.
Advocate nations argue – former Warsaw Pact states particularly vociferously – that a blanket denial of the bids will have major geostrategic implications: It will thwart the fragile democratic "color revolutions" in those states, allow Moscow time to bully the states back into its control, and constitute a veto by Russia over NATO membership.
"This is dramatic high-stakes stuff," says Ronald Asmus, a former US diplomat who is now director of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. "We might look back at loss, we might get a deal – it will go down to the wire. I hope we have a Plan B. Maybe we do, but I haven't heard about it. It will need to be a lot of substance – substance more than words."
While three Balkan states are due to be admitted for membership, Ukraine and Georgia are looking for an "invitation to an invitation" to join. But some influential member states, led most visibly by Germany, doubt the two suitors' readiness.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is coming as a guest, accession for the two ex-Soviet states is one of the most crucial questions now in play. In particular, it sees the strategically central Ukraine, a cradle of old Russia, as a "red line" that can't be crossed.
'The future of NATO is Afghanistan'
President Bush, who on Wednesday announced that he would make a special post-summit trip to Russia to smooth things over with President Putin, has supported Ukraine's and Georgia's bids. He will visit the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on his way to the summit in Bucharest, Romania.
But experts say the White House has not worked the question hard enough to overcome the opposition of Germany, Italy, and Spain, and now France. State Department sources last week confirmed that the membership action plan (MAP) – is not the highest priority.
That view is echoed in France ahead of the summit as well. "The fact that NATO can be defeated in Afghanistan puts the Ukraine-Georgia question far down on the list of priorities," says Thomas Gomart, director of Russian Affairs at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris. "For us, the future of NATO is not enlargement. It is Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Afghanistan.
"If we get Georgia or Ukraine into NATO, it transfers the nature of the alliance from military to a political club.... We have enough trouble in the world without adding tensions with Russia," he adds.
Putin's presence in Bucharest is slightly sensitive. No consensus exists among NATO members as to whether he is coming as a potential friend, a vetoing competitor, or a victor in a legacy battle to reassert Russia.
Opponents of accession for the two former Soviet states argue that their objection is one of timing, not substance, saying that membership is not a matter of "if, but when." Whether or not Putin or President-elect Dmitri Medvedev agree is another question. This may be a finessing of language, experts say, since members can't suggest that Russia has a veto over NATO. But, as one Baltic diplomat put it: "Ukraine and Georgia won't join NATO because of Russia, but Vladimir Putin doesn't have a veto over NATO?"
Following the accession four years ago of a half-dozen states including ex-Soviet neighbors Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, Moscow sees a further "enlargement" of NATO into its sphere of influence – together with US plans for missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic – as a threat to its security.
"No state can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders," said Mr. Medvedev in a Financial Times interview published this week.
Germany leads the opposition
Unlike the 1990s, when German-US relations were the engine behind some 10 new former East bloc nations in NATO, substantial differences now exist between Washington and Berlin. President Angela Merkel openly opposed MAPs in Moscow this month, and refused to meet either President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine or President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia in Brussels March 13, when they sought talks on NATO.
Vladimir Socor of the Eurasia Daily Monitor calls it "an all-out, public campaign" by Germany, though others say Berlin is simply the most vocal opponent.
"NATO for Ukraine would be a public humiliation for Russia that would last generations," says Heinrich Kreft of the foreign-policy team for Merkel's Christian Democrat party. Yet Mr. Asmus says that Ukraine and Georgia should receive a bundle of concrete action plans short of an invitation – "say, 80 percent of MAPs .... a NATO staff presence, exercises, beefing up visits, making schedules of activities, doing things that are real, and that will give people a reason to hope."
At a recent conference in Brussels, Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Rietkins said, "I know how it is to be at the doorstep [of NATO]," but that joining helped "reform society, caused us to rethink our military structure, and allowed an internal dialog where there wasn't one before."
In Georgia, public opinion is 77 percent in favor, but the country has two regional "frozen conflicts."
Ukraine has been in dialogue with NATO since 2005; this January, President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko stated its readiness. Skeptics cite low opinion polls (17 percent), close ties with Russia's military, and an eastern section of the country that is solidly pro-Moscow. Advocates say an invitation would change the polling data.
Russia is playing off the divisions in a bid to thwart Ukraine's membership hopes.
"Russia has been against NATO enlargement from the beginning," says Oleksandr Sushko of the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "But now they are more active than ever. They understand that, in Ukraine's case, they might succeed, because they see there is no consensus in NATO, and there is no consensus in Ukraine, so they feel they might succeed in blocking.... All diplomatic stops have been pulled out, and approaches have been made to wavering NATO countries."
NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hopes NATO will be seen as nonthreatening by Moscow and, two weeks ago, hinted Russia might participate in a "supporting" logistical role in the Afghan mission. "Engagement with a capital 'E,' " he argues. With Putin in Bucharest, he favors "openly discussing Kosovo, missile defense, [Conventional Forces in Europe treat], and enlargement."
• Fred Weir contributed from Moscow.