- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Earlier this month at the NATO summit, the United States sought to win support for the extension of Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia. These plans are the final preparatory step for states seeking to join the Alliance. Both Ukraine and Georgia have established themselves as Western-looking democracies and are worthy candidates for NATO membership

Unfortunately, some NATO members balked in the face of strong Russian opposition, and because NATO works by consensus, both countries’ bids failed. While the United States failed to secure MAPs, the administration did succeed in securing a pledge in the final communique that in the future, Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO” and that MAPs could be extended as early as December. This was a major success after a damaging setback. While MAP is a tangible step, it does not promise membership. The communique signed by NATO leaders did.

Moscow employed its entire arsenal of military, diplomatic and economic tools to undercut support for the two former Soviet states and to intimidate NATO leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin went so far as to threaten Ukraine with a nuclear attack while standing beside Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko at a press conference weeks before the Bucharest summit.

The more immediate challenge is the case of tiny Georgia (population 4.6 million). The Kremlin says NATO membership is so unacceptable it is prepared to subvert the territorial integrity of the one-time Soviet Republic in the Caucasus. Moscow is undertaking legal and diplomatic steps that could lead to recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist Georgian territories.

These actions are blatantly designed to undercut the extensive diplomatic proposal offered by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to the separatists, which includes guarantees of broad political representation; an Abkhazian vice president; the right to veto legislation; establishment of a joint free economic zone; and international guarantees of autonomy.

These Russian actions require a timely, robust and intensive diplomatic response from Washington. This issue will not resolve itself, and significant U.S. interests are at stake.

Georgia is an important friend to the United States. Most of the country’s young leadership was educated in America and, after assuming power, quickly sought to join Western institutions. Georgians have made welcome military contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The country hosts a large segment of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to Western markets.

President Saakashvili has made impressive democratic and economic strides in the face of intense pressure from Russia. These machinations have included energy cutoffs in the middle of winter; military incursions and threats to Georgian territory; a blockade on trade; and massive subversive intelligence operations. Just this week, a Russian MiG shot down an unmanned Georgian surveillance drone as it flew over Abkhazia.

Russia is clearly trying to provoke the Georgians into an over-reaction that will tarnish Georgia’s image in the West. To its great credit, Tbilisi has so far chosen the path of restraint and negotiation, as evidenced by Mr. Saakashvili’s magnanimous diplomatic initiative.

But Georgia cannot win this standoff alone. A peaceful solution will require U.S. leadership, and engagement by the rest of NATO. Those NATO members who thought they could appease Moscow by denying Georgia a MAP have already learned a hard lesson. Days after the summit ended, the Russian government took further steps to pry the two breakaway regions from Georgia.

It is time for Europe to get off the fence. The European states must engage Moscow and make clear that its actions in Georgia are unacceptable and inconsistent with the assumption that several European governments made in blocking MAP for Georgia.

A peaceful solution to the crisis is possible if we act now. Washington must lead an intensive international diplomatic counteroffensive against Russia’s efforts to destabilize Georgia and the region. The process should start by internationalizing the negotiations and peacekeeping missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which until now have been dominated by Moscow.

The trans-Atlantic community must understand that Russia’s actions are not directed solely at Georgia. They are also aimed squarely at NATO itself, whose peaceful expansion Russia has long opposed. Russia hopes to instigate confrontational responses and prolong the territorial crisis to further complicate Georgia’s NATO aspirations.

America and its allies must not fall into this trap. Georgia has done its part by refusing to overreact and continues to seek a diplomatic solution. The time has come for the trans-Atlantic community to show unity and commitment. The administration should seek and our NATO allies should provide commitments to offer MAPs to Georgia and Ukraine at the next NATO meeting in December.

Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, is ranking minority member on the committee.

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