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Closing the window of opportunity for Russia?

The unclear NATO membership status of Georgia and Ukraine creates ambiguity and vulnerability in the ‘grey zone’ area of the Black Sea.

June 7, 2021 - Silvie Leštinská - Articles and Commentary

Soldiers of the eight Exercise Noble Partner countries during a wreath laying ceremony in Tbilisi 2017. Photo: Sgt. Shiloh Capers. U.S Army Europe flickr.com

NATO simply cannot tackle the various security challenges and hybrid threats posed by Russia. Upgrading the longstanding candidate status of Georgia and Ukraine is the organisation’s only real chance to deter Moscow’s major political and military role in the post-Soviet region. Instead, NATO’s continued policy of keeping both states at arm’s length is deeply concerning and is only contributing to protracted tensions in the Black Sea region.

Vladimir Putin recently received a generous gift from the US and the West. President Joe Biden, with German support, has agreed not to block the construction of Nord Stream 2 and has announced that his administration will not impose sanctions. This approach sends a clear sign to the Kremlin, eager to advance its major geopolitical project, that the main actor capable of stalling it will not interfere. Once completed, the project will strip Ukraine of its strategic importance for the EU’s energy security. Berlin argues that it is in its own economic interests to complete Nord Stream 2. However, the German government continues to ignore the consequences the pipeline might have for the EU and NATO’s eastern neighbourhood.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s enlargement left six Eastern European and Caucasian countries in a ‘grey zone’ between Russia and NATO’s new borders. This critical intersection of threats and vulnerabilities to Moscow’s desire to re-establish its regional hegemony produced a number of unwanted consequences. In 2008, George W. Bush proposed admitting Georgia and Ukraine to NATO. However, France and Germany  thwarted Bush’s proposal. This opened the path for Russia to invade Georgia, which occurred in 2008 as a result of the failures of the NATO Bucharest summit. History tends to repeat itself. With NATO’s next major summit only weeks away, failure to move towards admitting Georgia and Ukraine may trigger another Russian attack. Both states are accelerating their joint push for clarity about their status in anticipation of the summit.

The crises in Georgia and Ukraine are the result of a series of long-term problems that have become increasingly visible. This includes the continued strategic dissonance between Russia and the West. Since 2014, there has been a substantial increase in Russian activities around NATO borders, with ships, planes and submarines venturing close to and occasionally across these frontiers to conduct exercises and cyber-attacks against the Alliance’s member states. Russia is also engaged in an ongoing propaganda and disinformation campaign and has attempted to stir up inter-ethnic tensions. The Kremlin funds populist and extremist parties across Europe in an attempt to split the Alliance.

Moscow is also deeply involved in a series of conflicts and has been a trigger for NATO’s internal crisis with Turkey over Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. It is vital to position Turkey as a powerful NATO ally and actor in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian geopolitical spaces. Ankara provides access to the Black Sea and the Caucasus regions, where Georgia and Ukraine could potentially extend the strategic power of the Alliance. Instead, President Joe Biden decided to officially recognise the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, risking an already fractured relationship with Turkey. Such moves will only deepen tensions and potentially destabilise internal NATO relations.

Georgia and Ukraine are two of the most strategic important grey zone countries that can also provide NATO with access to the Black Sea. Consequently, ignoring the emerging geopolitical tendencies in the region will only result in further escalation in the conflicts involving Georgia and Ukraine. NATO’s unwillingness to discuss the two partners’ status only plays into the hands of Russia, which continues to flex its muscles at the Ukrainian border and silently advance into Georgia’s territory.

The Kremlin will stop challenging and testing NATO when it knows it cannot succeed. The sooner the Alliance makes it clear to Moscow that crossing NATO boundaries has consequences, the more stable the region will become. The upcoming NATO summit will hopefully provide more than just recycled rhetoric and voices of ‘concern’ about Georgia and Ukraine. If not, the implications and costs will be high for Kyiv, Tbilisi and the regional role of NATO, which might face losing its gateway to the Black Sea. Overall, it is clear that NATO should not take it for granted that Turkey will continue to provide access.

Silvie Leštinská is an independent researcher focusing on European security. Silvie holds a Master degree in global politics and political affairs. Her particular interest centres around the context of NATO, geopolitics and the insurgency of Russia.

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