When NATO stalls, Putin pounces

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NATO headquarters in Brussels. [UtenriksdepartementetUD/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report EU-Ukraine Relations.

Failure to enlarge harms NATO and emboldens President Putin, argue Dr Liam Fox and Sally A. Painter.

Dr Liam Fox is a British MP and former secretary of state for defence. Sally A. Painter is on the Board of Directors for the US Committee for NATO Enlargement and COO of Blue Star Strategies, LLC.

Across Europe, the worsening migrant crisis is understandably becoming the focal issue for political leaders. The Paris terrorist attacks and the uncovered plots in Germany and Belgium are signs that security is still a major concern for many European countries.

At the 2008 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Bucharest, Romania, the leaders of the alliance sent the world a signal that they had lost their vision for the future by stalling NATO enlargement. This already looks like a dangerous misjudgment and one which may have dire consequences if not reversed. The Bucharest summit denied Macedonia a promised and much-deserved invitation and failed to offer Georgia and Ukraine entry into the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), even though their citizens were firmly committed to joining the transatlantic alliance. The historic opportunity to continue the integration of Europe was lost. The moral momentum of the Alliance was lost to the great satisfaction of those who wish to see a weakened West.

The failure to enlarge the alliance left Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine dangling between East and West, a condition rapidly seized on by Putin. Less than three months after the Bucharest summit concluded, Russia invaded Georgia in August of 2008, setting off a bloody five-day war that killed hundreds and left thousands more in temporary shelters and with a Russian occupying force on sovereign Georgian territory. The Georgian conflict set the stage for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, the results of which have led to an estimated: 6,500 deaths, 16,000 wounded, over five million people in need of humanitarian aid, 1.3 million registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 600,000 refugees.

Putin cleverly used NATO’s failure to enlarge as an opportunity to test its limits. Clearly Putin has concluded that NATO will not move to protect its non-member countries, a fact confirmed by the painfully slow NATO response in Ukraine. Yet even as the Kremlin increases its aggression and continues to disregard European sovereignty, some NATO leaders balk at enlargement for fear of upsetting Moscow. Today the same reluctance to enlarge NATO that effectively allowed Putin to invade Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, threatens to destabilize the Balkans as Moscow ratchets up anti-Western propaganda throughout the region.

Moscow must not be allowed to dictate NATO’s strategic decisions. Most importantly, the alliance must reinvigorate itself and present a strong position in the face of Putin’s aggression. A growing alliance is a strong alliance. Now that Montenegro has received a formal invitation to join NATO, it is time for the Alliance to offer membership to Macedonia at next year’s Warsaw summit. Macedonia has well deserved to be a member since 2008, and with this move the alliance will signal to the international community that NATO is unified and truly committed to the vision of a Europe, whole, free and at peace. It will also show how seriously the strategic importance of the Balkans is taken.

As Macedonian Defence Minister Zoran Jolevski stated during the Wroclaw Global Forum, the “integration of [Macedonia and Montenegro] will help stability in the region” by promoting regional unity in the face of increasing threats to peace and security. At Wroclaw, former US National Security Advisor Steve Hadley noted that both the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro should be admitted to NATO in order to reduce Moscow’s influence over the Balkans. Hadley added, “Let’s show the door is open to NATO membership by taking Macedonia and Montenegro in, and for the EU to say a frozen conflict is not a reason why a country cannot move toward membership.”

Membership in the alliance will provide security for citizens and governments, help industry feel protected, promote investment and economic stability, and strengthen the region as a whole. This was expressed by the former deputy prime minister and Minister of Defence of Poland, Tomasz Siemoniak, who stated that Poland, as the host of the next NATO Summit, would like to see an invitation for both Macedonia and Montenegro to join the alliance.

Now with Montenegro’s official invitation to join NATO, those opposed to Macedonia’s entrance into the alliance stipulate that the country is not ready. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the past decade, Macedonia has demonstrated its ability to implement significant reforms to democracy, transparency, and rule of law. They have participated in military exercises and combat missions including Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. And while there is still work to be done, Macedonia has shown their commitment to NATO by fulfilling their obligations under MAP. In particular, the country has fulfilled sixteen Membership Action Plans, rightly earning its place within the NATO alliance.

While Greece and Macedonia’s relationship is frustrating, it would not be the first time that two countries with bilateral issues have been admitted to NATO. For example, Greece and Turkey have had a rocky relationship for years, yet they have successfully cooperated within NATO to address external threats to regional security. The alliance’s framework will provide Macedonia and Greece a similar space for dialogue on external security challenges that go beyond their bilateral issues, possibly improving relations in at least some areas. As we have seen recently, EU leaders have been frustrated with Greek unwillingness to compromise on their debt issue, which is indicative of the difficulties that Macedonia has endured as it has worked to find a mutually agreeable solution over the name for the past 25 years.

Additionally, NATO membership will give Macedonia an incentive to continue its internal reforms. As an aspirant to the European Union and NATO, it is extremely difficult to make economic, social, and political progress without a high level of security—security that NATO can provide. Enlargement will also send a strong message to the region that if countries meet their commitments to NATO, NATO will meet its commitments to them.

Keeping Macedonia out of the alliance risks allowing outside actors to destabilize the Balkans, and handing Putin another strategic victory in the region when he is already encouraging Republica Srpska to see the secession referendum in the Crimea as a precedent. The Warsaw summit is NATO’s opportunity to learn from the events that followed Bucharest and to prove to Putin, and other parties that disregard sovereign borders and seek to undermine Europe’s regional security, that the alliance is strong, resilient, and growing despite external threats. If the door to membership is truly open as NATO claims, then it is time to reinforce that claim by letting Macedonia in out of the cold. NATO’s future should not be dictated by the Kremlin.