- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2014

While political unrest in Ukraine dominates headlines, lawmakers in Washington are quietly pressuring the Obama administration to take a more aggressive stand toward allowing NATO membership for Georgia — another former Soviet republic and source of contention between the U.S. and Russia.

The effort saw 40 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle write a letter this month to Secretary of State John F. Kerry stressing that the U.S. and its allies “have reached a critical point in which action is necessary to ensure NATO’s future relevance and viability.”

The Ukrainian government’s recent shift toward Moscow and away from the West that triggered the political violence there is not explicitly mentioned in the letter.

But the lawmakers asserted that Washington’s “failure to recognize and reward” others attempting to embrace Western political and economic ideals in the region “could discourage aspirant countries from pursuing further democratic reforms and weaken their commitment to partnering with Euro-Atlantic institutions.”

The Feb. 5 letter, drafted by the office of Rep. Mike Turner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the U.S. Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, specifically called on the secretary of state to advocate granting Georgia a “membership action plan” at NATO’s 2014 summit, which is slated for September.

The letter also called on Mr. Kerry to encourage progress toward similar plans for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia.

Previous plan participants that have joined NATO in the past 10 years include Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia — all countries that were part of the communist bloc during the Cold War, either as themselves or as part of bigger countries that broke apart in that bloc collapsed in the 1990s.

But it’s Georgia that seems most likely to anger Moscow.

For Russia, the idea of Georgia becoming a NATO member is “a nightmare,” said Riccardo Alcaro, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.

“They are convinced that NATO has been pursuing for over 20 years a fundamentally anti-Russia agenda aimed at encircling, weakening and containing Russia,” Mr. Alcaro said.

Separately, the U.S. and Western Europe continue to face a key procedural hurdle that could complicate Georgia’s ascension. At issue are two ongoing territorial disputes in the nation, where the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have declared independence.

NATO has not recognized their independence, but Moscow has.

Mr. Alcaro noted that as a general rule, NATO is unwilling to accept countries with such unresolved disputes because it “involves the risk of NATO being drawn into a military confrontation.”

“Common sense has it that NATO’s enlargement should take place wherever it enhances NATO’s security,” he added. “If enlarging the Alliance means a spillover of insecurity into it, what’s the point?”

But several key lawmakers in the House are hoping such factors won’t stand in the way.

Among those who signed the letter to Mr. Kerry were Rep. William Keating, Massachusetts Democrat and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats; and Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat who sits on the joint Commission on Security on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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