By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 16, 2008 - Russia's attack on Georgia, the first invasion orchestrated by Moscow since the end of the Soviet Union, raises questions about NATO's future role in the region, defense officials said. "We have heretofore, since NATO began to enlarge in the '90s, operated in an environment where the presumption was that Russia was a partner for NATO, not an adversary," Eric S. Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy, said last week . "Unfortunately, Russia's behavior in the last month has now called that into question. And that's going to have to be reassessed," he said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
In the wake of Georgia's five-day war with Russia, the Defense Department has deployed a team to Georgia to assess the Georgian military's organization, training, materiel and others aspects. A Pentagon official said yesterday that the government in Georgian capital city of Tbilisi requested the U.S. team, which began deploying over the past weekend and will comprise 15 core personnel.
"[The assessment team will] help us begin to consider carefully Georgia's legitimate needs and our response," Edelman told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 9.
As the U.S. response materializes, NATO is undergoing a self-assessment that centers on a related structural question: Should former Soviet states like Georgia come under the alliance's protective umbrella? Prior to Moscow's invasion of its southern neighbor, NATO's answer was hopeful, but fell short of offering a membership action plan, or MAP, which serves as a precursor to outright membership.
During NATO's summit in March, the military and political alliance voiced optimism that it could eventually green-light MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said, the discussion took the possibility of MAPs "out of the realm of 'whether' and put it into the realm of 'when,' with a clear implication that 'when' is sooner, rather than later."
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer today said that the organization will continue to enlarge, though he gave no timeline for when Georgia would be placed on a MAP. Scheffer is on a two-day tour of Georgia.
"The process of NATO enlargement will continue, with due caution, but also with a clear purpose," he told students at Tbilisi State University, adding that no other country will have a veto over that process. "And while the events of last month may have been a setback, the road to NATO is still wide open for Georgia."
One stipulation of the membership plan is that aspiring states resolve their ethnic conflicts, which NATO cited as a principle challenge facing Georgia.
"We are concerned with the persistence of regional conflicts in the South Caucasus," read the declaration issued after the summit in Bucharest, Romania, in which NATO voiced support for the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Georgia, and its efforts toward a peaceful settlement.
NATO's concern about regional conflicts became a reality Aug. 8, when hundreds of Russian tanks and vehicles, and thousands of combat troops entered the Georgian province of South Ossetia, a heavily pro-Moscow enclave that proved the flashpoint in the standoff. Though Moscow escalated the level of aggression, Edelman said, Georgia was hardly inculpable in the run-up to the conflict, firing artillery and rockets at South Ossetian urban centers and nearby Russian peacekeepers in early August.
He told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that the United States does not condone Georgia's "lamentable" actions. Russia's response, nonetheless, was "disproportionate," he said, with dozens of planes conducting air and missile strikes into areas controlled by Tbilisi hours after Georgia's move into the province.
Russian forces remain in Georgia in defiance of a cease-fire deal reached Aug. 13, and the Kremlin further roiled the international community late last month when it recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia's other pro-Moscow region, as independent states.
Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, appearing with Edelman before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, said NATO membership can be a "strikingly effective mechanism for resolving disputes between nations."
"And we saw in the process of NATO's enlargement to Central Europe and Eastern Europe in the '90s that disputes that had plagued these countries in the past tended to vanish or become greatly attenuated as part of the NATO enlargement process," he said. "So as a result of NATO enlargement, we saw a Europe whole, free and at peace coming into being instead of a return to national conflicts."
But Fried urged caution as NATO continues to look at enlarging eastward, underscoring the sensitivity of the debate about extending the alliance to include Georgia.
"NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine is not on the immediate agenda," Fried said, adding that putting the countries on MAPs is an immediate interest. "It is a program under which countries can prepare and get themselves ready for membership, a process which usually takes a number of years."
Edelman interpreted Russia's actions in the region since the March NATO summit as, in part, intending to drive wedges between NATO and the Caucus countries of Georgia and Ukraine.
"It's tried ... to drive wedges between the newer and older members of the alliance, tried to drive wedges between the United States and NATO and the [European Union]," Edelman added. "It seems to me that our large, strategic interest is to make sure that that does not happen."
Edelman also suggested that Russia might not have invaded Georgia had it been a member to the military alliance. Such aggression would have invoked NATO's Article 5 principle, under which an attack against one is an attack against all.
But Edelman tempered his conjecture, reflecting the caution with which the discussion of Georgian membership in NATO is unfolding.
"I think it's arguable that had Georgia been a member of the alliance, perhaps Russia would have acted differently in the light of the Article 5 guarantee," he said in last week's congressional hearing.
"That's a hypothetical," he added. "We don't know."