It’s official – NATO will not offer Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plans (MAPs), Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after a two-day summit of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. 

By maintaining its policy from April of eventual but not immediate membership for Georgia and Ukraine, NATO showed pragmatism and responsibility.

U.S. Eases Pressure

This week’s meeting saw the U.S. back off its earlier pressure for MAPs to be offered to Georgia and Ukraine.  Furthermore, the U.S. appears to have agreed with European objections that the two are not politically ready to join NATO, not simply to have conceded its earlier stance in the face of defeat.  A lot has happened since the Bucharest summit in April (war in Georgia, financial crisis, governmental collapse in Ukraine … again), and the new U.S. position reflects a new state of affairs between the West and Russia, with the EU in particular seeking to avoid further tensions.  The Guardian writes:

The U.S. government recently backed away from its call for Ukraine and Georgia to be prepared for NATO membership.  It has called, however, for such “post-Soviet” nations to modernize their armed forces and develop stronger democratic institutions.

[Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] hinted that the U.S. was considering seeking to improve relations with Moscow.  “I think you would want to be very careful, for instance, about doing things that look military-to-military, because the Russian military is still sitting in the states,” she said, referring to the standoff in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  The U.S.-backed government in Georgia claims the territories as integral parts of the nation.

“This [war] turned out badly for Russia, very badly,” Rice said.  Moscow had failed to bring down the Georgian government, its economy, or international support for it, Rice said.  “If they did anything, they managed to increase international support for Georgia, not decrease it.”

Regardless of Ukrainian and Georgian membership, Russia’s paranoia about NATO’s motives and continued rhetorical attacks indicate the alliance is anything but dead in the mind of the Kremlin.  That Moscow takes the organization seriously is evident in its objection to MAPs for Kiev and Tbilisi in particular as well as to eastward NATO expansion in general.  NATO still has teeth; it’s not the CSTO or even the SCO.

Alternative Routes to Membership

Additionally, the decision to delay membership for the two countries shows wisdom on NATO’s part.  Although both are making efforts, neither Ukraine nor Georgia yet meet the democratic, economic, and military benchmarks required for NATO membership.  Allowing their premature accession in order to present a united front against Russia would be the wrong move.

By extension, Russia should not interpret its actions in Georgia as having driven a wedge through the alliance.  Membership for Georgia and Ukraine was a non-starter for Germany and France well before the war (although worries over Russia’s reaction were certainly behind their opposition).  If anything, the U.S. and UK shift means that all four countries are thinking more alike on the issue now than they were six months ago.

Similarly, that Ukraine and Georgia were not offered MAPs should not be interpreted as a denial of future membership.  Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic all joined before the MAP system was in place; even now, a MAP is not a definite guarantee of membership.  So, focusing too much on whether MAPs are offered to Ukraine and Georgia can be distracting.  As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried noted, “The debate about MAP is not as important as it once was.  Having made this decision that NATO membership is the end state, then the challenge is for these countries to demonstrate their readiness and for us to help them.”

Admittedly, the MAP system was designed to take into account the lessons learned from the accession experience of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, but the (MAP-less) model these countries followed can still serve as a guide for Georgia and Ukraine over the next few years.  The political and economic changes instituted in Eastern Europe after the Cold War demonstrate that the prospect of future membership can indeed be a carrot for positive reform.

Potential for Regress Remains

The question remains whether Ukraine and Georgia truly believe the alliance will deliver its promise of eventual membership; the danger is that they may begin to look at accession as a lost cause.  After months of insistence that denying Georgia a clear roadmap into the alliance would be tantamount to giving Russia a veto over NATO, Georgia now seems to have shifted toward concentrating on reforms rather than acquiring a MAP.  EurasiaNet explains:

On November 20, in a veiled reference to Russia, Saakashvili warned that not granting Georgia an action plan — the last step before full membership in the alliance — would send “the wrong signal to the wrong people,” Deutsche Welle reported.

With Georgia’s strongest allies in NATO now indicating that a pro-MAP decision may not occur at Brussels, Saakashvili’s closest supporters are reacting accordingly.  In an interview with EurasiaNet, Nicholas Rurua, deputy chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Defense and Security, affirmed that Georgia is not fixated on receiving an action plan.

“MAP as such is nothing more than tough reforms, a long list of reforms that a country has to fulfill.  It just sounds very sexy – Membership Action Plan,” Rurua said.  “We don’t need … this kind of final result because it has already been decided in Bucharest.  We don’t need MAP to ensure that we will get into NATO … because it has been decided.  The political will has been expressed.”

However, Ukraine appears to be hedging its bets after this week’s summit, seeking to repair relations with Russia as its hopes of immediately joining NATO fade.  The Times reports:

The reappraisal comes amid debate in Kiev about the wisdom of antagonizing the Kremlin, particularly after the confrontation between Russia and Georgia in the summer.

President Yushchenko of Ukraine has ordered a policy review in an effort to defuse tensions with Russia over his country’s pro-Western leanings.  The shift is an acknowledgement that friction between Kiev and Moscow has made it harder for the European Union and NATO, particularly members such as Germany and France, to embrace Ukraine.

New Rules of the Game?

A few months ago, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said:

“I think the rules have changed in the sense that Europe, in which we could dispense security guarantees to countries without anticipating having to bear any cost for them, has just ended.  The Russians have forced us to think in a more disciplined way about the future of NATO, the value of the guarantees, the practicalities that go with them.”

Such a rethink was (and remains) sorely needed.  At this week’s meeting, NATO followed a pragmatic approach that takes into account the importance of good relations with Russia as well as the unpreparedness of Georgia and Ukraine for immediate membership.  That said, the U.S. and the EU should continue to provide aid and assistance to Kiev and Tbilisi, whose Euro-Atlantic aspirations should clearly not be ignored.  However, by not offering the two countries MAPs, the alliance smartly opted to invest in its longer-term interests, ensuring that Ukraine and Georgia will be truly ready to join when that day comes, rather than adopt a short-term tactical move that gives the appearance of a tough stance on Russia but little more.

Peter Cassata is an assistant editor at the Atlantic Council.