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This doesn’t make sense

Daniel Serwer

April 23, 2016



US Ambassador to NATO Lute said Friday:

I think Russia plays an important part in the strategic environment…[which] will put a break on NATO expansion. If you accept the premises…about Russia’s internal weakness and perhaps steady decline, it may not make sense to push further now and maybe accelerate or destabilize the decline.

I am assured that this statement represents no departure from Article 10 of the NATO treaty, which provides for the membership to unanimously “invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty.” Montenegro has already received such an invitation and will be admitted to membership at the July 8/9 NATO Summit in Warsaw.

What doesn’t make sense to me is Washington accommodating Moscow’s aggressiveness internationally in order to avoid destabilizing it internally. Quite to the contrary: pushing back on Moscow’s increasingly aggressive stance against NATO expansion would provide incentive and opportunity for Russia to refocus its energies on its internal problems, which lower oil prices and Ukraine-induced sanctions are aggravating.

This is particularly true for NATO expansion into the Balkans, a region not contiguous with Russian territory. NATO expansion to tiny and distant Montenegro can in no way be reasonably perceived as a threat to Russia, no matter how often Russian diplomats repeat that refrain. The same is true of Slovenia, Albania and Croatia, all of which became NATO members with little or no comment from Moscow. Even if all of the remaining Balkans countries join–that’s Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Serbia–Russia is in no way militarily at risk.

That makes the Balkans different from Georgia and Ukraine. Location matters.

This hasn’t prevented Moscow from mounting aggressive campaigns in all but pro-American Kosovo against Alliance membership, as well as a rearguard action against Montenegrin accession. Moscow uses its diplomats to speak out crudely against NATO membership, its money to fund anti-NATO protests, and its commercial influence to turn local politicians against the Alliance. Russia has even planted a proto-base (allegedly for humanitarian rather than military purposes) in southern Serbia, hoping this will inoculate Belgrade from catching the NATO flu.

Russia’s anti-NATO efforts threaten to destabilize the Balkans, where the prospect of NATO membership is an important factor in promoting democratization and reducing inter-ethnic tensions. This is especially true in Macedonia, where much of the Albanian population regards the prospect of NATO membership as vital to its own security. It is of course also true in Kosovo, where NATO troops have been vital to maintaining a safe and secure environment since the NATO/Yugoslavia war in 2001. Bosnia and Serbia are more ambivalent towards NATO, though Serbia’s prime minister recently noted (in the runup to a parliamentary election) that NATO troops in Kosovo protect the Serb population there.

So Ambassador Lute’s comments–even if not meant to qualify Article 10–will be read in the Balkans as discouraging hopes for NATO membership and in Moscow as a green light for Russian efforts to undermine the generally positive trend the region has taken for the past 20 years. It would be good now for the American Administration to reiterate that Washington still wants a Europe “whole and free,” including in particular the Balkans and even Russia if it so chooses. Anything less than that gives Moscow further incentive to muck in what it increasingly considers its sphere of influence, which could set back decades of democratization and run the real risk of destabilization.



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