- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

VILNIUS, Lithuania — The next six months may be the most trying yet for the decade-andahalflong-process of securing a permanent place in the West for the newly free nations of the formerly communist eastern reaches of Europe. That’s the real lesson of the summit meeting here that drew an appearance from Dick Cheney. The vice president took occasion to signal a welcome Bush administration shift in policy toward Russia, whose deteriorating democracy, energy bluster and nostalgia for an era in which Moscow’s word is fiat in its own neighborhood are emerging as major obstacles to the long-term independence and prosperity of Georgia and Ukraine.

Central and Eastern Europe have always been the places to go for the maximally suspicious view of what the Kremlin is up to, and that tendency was on display at the various summit events here. It’s usually necessary to discount the rhetoric to take into account a century or more of living under Moscow’s thumb, from imperial czarist times through the Soviet period. The rhetoric in Vilnius was often overheated, but there’s no denying the desire of Vladimir Putin’s Russia to intimidate its way to a position of renewed dominance in those parts of the ex-Soviet space that are not already well on the way to integration with the West.

Western integration has two key institutions: NATO and the European Union. Both have substantial attractive power, policymakers are willing to make sacrifices and undertake difficult reforms when they have the possibility of membership before them. Both have enlarged to include many of the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, with more in the pipeline to join.

But the European Union is suffering from a bad case of enlargement fatigue. Popular sentiment against admitting Turkey, which the United States has long pressed upon the EU, is running high among member states, and there is no possibility now of a tip in European opinion in favor of eventual admission of Georgia, on the far shore of the Black Sea, for example. Efforts to keep NATO’s door open to new members are facing two new challenges: first, the sense in Europe that NATO membership (especially in the eyes of the United States and new members themselves) is a stalking horse for eventual EU membership and is thus undesirable now for such countries as Georgia; second, a desire for what Jean-Dominique Giuliani of the Fondation Robert Schuman in Paris called “quiet” relations with Russia overall.

Is there a way to square the circle without leaving Ukraine and especially Georgia dangling indefinitely? There may be. First, the Americans need to respect the current state of European public opinion on the question of further EU enlargement. As the failure of the EU Constitutional Treaty last year in referenda in the Netherlandsand France reminds, there’s a serious disconnection in Europe between elite and popular opinion on where European integration stands right now, let alone further enlargement.The United States has long been pressing the case for “wider Europe,” and wider indeed has the European Union become. But it’s time for us to lower our profile and let Europeans work through these issues. Working together, we need to sever the perceived connection between joining NATO and joining the EU.

Second, and relatedly, the EU needs to do some serious thinking about how to relate to its neighbors outside the context of potential membership. The discussion under way for a “deep” free-trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine is a good example of how one might translate the attractive power of Europe into rewards for good policy choices by neighbors who aren’t going to become EU members in the foreseeable future. It would be a shame if Europe’s attractive power simply vanished because the EU has stopped accepting new members.

Third, the new and emerging democracies in the east need to understand that they do themselves no good by proposing a wholesale revision of Western policy toward Russia in the direction of confrontation. Russia policy is bigger than the question of integrating the east into the West, and it would be foolish in the extreme to make integration a hostage to large-scale policy change that is not happening anyway.

It’s also unnecessary. Mr. Cheney’s critical remarks toward Russia should be entirely adequate to make the point that the United States does not now consider, as it has never considered, Russia’s views opposing NATO enlargement to be dispositive. And if the price of timely admission of Georgia and Ukraine is to reassure our older allies that all will remain relatively quiet on the Russian front, it’s worth paying in exchange for their support for finishing the task of securing the independence and prosperity of Europe’s east.

In fact, the surest way to embolden Mr. Putin would be to give him a victory on Georgia and Ukraine. That would no doubt create an incentive for even more egregious Russian conduct, which in turn would likely provoke in time a far harsher U.S. response.

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