US Ambassador to NATO Lute
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.