Is it a good time for a new NATO partnership?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has been recurrently reviewing its coalition and taking major steps every five years to adjust to the changing geostrategic environment. In 1994 NATO established the Partnership for Peace (PfP) framework, which allowed the organization to reach out to newly independent Soviet republics and seek common areas for partnership. In 1999 it accepted three new members into the alliance, and in 2004 the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by 7 more countries. Finally, in 2009 the number of Treaty cosignatories went up from 26 to 28. The current question is what we can expect from the NATO Wales Summit in 2014?

by Huseyn Panahov | Download in PDF

Map of NATO affiliations in Europe

Map of NATO affiliations in Europe

At a time when the Kremlin is trying to re-impose its influence over the post-soviet space and dictate the foreign policy course of former Soviet republics, NATO needs to be more pro-active and decisive to avoid losing strategically important partners in the region. Today, a number of Eastern European countries have reached a turning point in their strategic policy course: either they follow a path of Euro-Atlantic integration, or they fall back under the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. Presently, enlargement is not a priority for the NATO community and, due to geostrategic considerations of some member states, it might be hard to reach a unilateral vote to bring a new country into the alliance. Nonetheless, in order to avoid the loss of critical partners, it is time for NATO to launch a new partnership framework that will take cooperation with these countries to a new level, recognize their efforts, and offer something in return. Rebranding and starting a new, more committed relationship with select partners could send a positive message to domestic audiences of these countries, which is crucial at this stage, and stimulate other NATO aspirant countries, which might be too distant from the alliance now.

Eastern frontier is the most vibrant region of the European continent, which at times has played the role of buffer zone and protected Europe from foreign invaders. This region is also the continental Europe’s historical gateway for trade and cooperation with Asia. Nowadays, NATO must show commitment and provide assistance to Eastern European countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belorussia and Armenia, as there are various strategic and operational level issues that dissociate them from Euro-Atlantic community. NATO needs a fresh partnership framework that will give these countries a more important role in the organization, involve them in NATO’s decision making process, and set higher mutual expectations.

Some have asserted that NATO may have reached its member saturation point and should not expand any further, yet on several occasions allied leaders have stated that doors to NATO remain open.  During Bucharest summit in 2008 the allied states fell short of suggesting a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to the two main candidates, Ukraine and Georgia. However, NATO decision makers agreed that in future both of these countries will likely join the alliance. MAP is a NATO assistance program customized for the individual needs of NATO aspirant countries and is largely an indicator of potential future membership. Since the Bucharest summit in 2008, Ukraine has already drastically strayed from the Euro-Atlantic path, following the Yanukovich administration’s ascent to office in 2010. Subsequently, cooperation intensity with Ukraine was set back to pre-2005 levels, before Ukraine declared its willingness to join NATO. In Georgia public referendum results in 2008 showed that 77% of the country’s population supported NATO membership. Famous Georgian analyst and president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International studies, Dr. Alexander Rondeli says that this number has not changed much over the past 6 years, but if Georgians do not find practical benefits of partnership with NATO anytime soon, the initial enthusiasm is likely to wear off.

Offering a Membership Action Plan to Tbilisi during the 2014 summit would be a positive step forward, however it would not solve the issue. According to NATO guidelines “participation in the MAP does not prejudge any decision by the Alliance on future membership.” With only a MAP in its hands Georgia will most likely join the indefinite waitlist alongside Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is because as long as Russian troops are present in the internationally-recognized Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it is very unlikely that Georgia will be accepted to NATO. Thus, it would be more practical to offer Georgia a more mutually-binding partnership than another promise of an uncertain future. Rapprochement of Georgia to NATO and its successes on the way to Euro-Atlantic integration would likely stimulate other countries in the region as well, as there is some interdependence among them all.

The “Study on NATO Enlargement”, which defines the criteria for admissions into the alliance was adopted in 1995 and still remains the guiding framework for accepting new members. According to NATO guidelines “states which are involved in ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes, must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles, before they can become members.”[i] This specific criterion has been a major impediment for Eastern European countries on the way to Euro-Atlantic integration. South Ossetia and Abkhazia for Georgia, Transnistria for Moldova and Nagorno Garabagh for Armenia and Azerbaijan are major obstructions on their path to integration with the Euro-Atlantic community.

There is a common belief that the key to the resolution of all these conflicts lays in the Kremlin, but the Putin administration prefers to use these disputes as pressure points on the region rather than securing enduring peace and stability here. For example, as a result of the Nagorno Garabagh conflict there are two Russian military bases in Armenia that house around 3,200 soldiers. Even though it has been more than 20 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, Yerevan is still politically and economically dependent on the Kremlin. Armenia is already a member of Russian led Collective Security Treaty Organization and has expressed its willingness to join the Eurasian Customs Union. Unresolved status of this conflict is detrimental to the interests of both Armenia and Azerbaijan as it not only hinders Euro-Atlantic integration of these countries but also prevents realization of potential regional cooperation projects.

In a similar fashion, the breakaway region of Transinistria holds back Moldova from Euro-Atlantic integration. During the collapse of Soviet Union, Transnistria seceded from Moldova, but it is internationally recognized as part of the Republic of Moldova. Today, there are around 1,200 Russian troops stationed on Transinistria’s border with Moldova and the status of the conflict remains unresolved. Through an exclusive partnership framework, NATO could bring these countries behind common discussion tables at NATO headquarters and help the nations to resolve the conflicts that endanger peace and hinder partnership in this region.

These Eastern European countries need tangible support from NATO for welfare and sovereignty of their state. If NATO does not engage them in a more committed and dynamic partnership, they will fall back under a Russian sphere of influence. Perhaps reminiscing of its Soviet past, Russia has initiated several regional cooperation frameworks to bind these countries together. More recently, Moscow’s stance has been more straightforward and aggressive. It would seem that any former Soviet country that does not join these Soviet Union replica institutions is seen as a foe of the Kremlin. Even though the Russian economy lacks manufacturing capacity, currently Russia has abundance of cash from raw material exports, especially oil and gas. Meanwhile, the Euro-Atlantic community, by and large, is still recovering from the economic crisis. The Putin administration has made quite lucrative economic proposals to these countries in return for their loyalty. For example, Moscow invested 15 billion US dollars in Ukraine for refusing to sign the Association Agreement with European Union. However, as later public protests in Kiev demonstrated, there is a large audience in Ukraine who believe that closer association with Europe would mean more efficient state institutions, responsive authorities and ultimately higher standards of living. On the other hand, since the Kremlin, unlike Euro-Atlantic structures, does not seek democratic and institutional reforms, it might be more attractive for more authoritarian regimes in some of these states to choose Moscow over Brussels. Consequently, Euro-Atlantic integration is a lengthy process and would not yield immediate benefits, but is a more promising option in the long run than coalition with Moscow. Thus, the new partnership framework would prove NATO’s support to public and political elites in these countries who favor Euro-Atlantic integration, so they do not lose faith over time.

Before gathering for the Wales Summit in September, NATO and its partners will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the PfP in May 2014. After the fall of the Soviet Union, when the iron curtain was lifted, the PfP was one of the first and most productive platforms that brought Western block and formerly Communist countries behind common discussion tables to seek potential areas of cooperation. As a result, NATO found partners in Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic and Black Sea regions, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. These nascent relations developing through PfP were based on reciprocity and contributed to mutual understanding between the Euro-Atlantic community and countries with heavy Soviet legacies. Over the past two decades PfP dialogues have helped to tackle a series of common threats across the region. For example, after September 11, 2001 attacks PfP members made essential contributions to fight the Global War on Terror, as they helped with intelligence, logistics and most of them even deployed their own small sized military units to Afghanistan. It is remarkable that out of 34 countries that started cooperation with NATO through PfP, 13 are currently cosignatories of the North Atlantic Treaty. Today, NATO needs a similar but more exclusive partnership framework that could bring together countries with similar geostrategic considerations and engage them in a closer partnership.

This new partnership framework could help NATO not only to be more agile in the European theater, but also more responsive to transformations in global power dynamics. It is not a secret that in the near future the Unites States – the leading power behind NATO, will be shifting its main geostrategic focus from Europe to Asia Pacific in order to counterbalance growing Chinese power. At a time when European countries are going through austerity measures, losing vital American support could result in the dissolution of the alliance. NATO already has reliable allies in the Asia Pacific, with whom the alliance is cooperating through Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program (IPCP), but NATO could strengthen its ties with regional countries through a mutually binding partnership. This new partnership could bring NATO closer with countries like Australia, Japan and South Korea, which would also support NATO’s outreach to Asia-Pacific region. Through the new partnership framework NATO could suggest these countries a new platform to discuss common threats and issues for the Euro-Atlantic community and its partners in the region.

NATO must undergo structural changes as the global geostrategic environment is reshaped. Offering a new exclusive partnership framework to strategically important partners in former Soviet Space would be a practical decision the allied leaders could agree upon during the 2014 summit. Today, it is unlikely that Eastern European countries will be able to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, but NATO cannot abandon them, either. The North Atlantic experts must work out a partnership framework that will legally bind these countries with the coalition, without offering them membership. This option presents a compromise that would demonstrate NATO’s commitment to significant allies without extending them an offer of full membership within the alliance.

[i] NATO Handbook. NATO Public Diplomacy Division. 2006. p. 62

2 thoughts on “Is it a good time for a new NATO partnership?

  1. Really good man! I actually agree with you a lot, particularly regarding the Caucus region. Do you think that the recent election in Azerbaijan would make it difficult for NATO to extend a probationary program to the country? What assistance can NATO give Georgia regarding the Russian-supported breakaways? Do you think Armenia will ever be able to drift away from Moscow considering they hold possession over Stepanakert?


    • Thank you buddy. I think there are very good relations between Azerbaijan and NATO and these relations haven’t changed since the elections. Potential assistance of NATO to Georgia regarding breakaway regions is the million dollar question. I don’t have exact answer, but I know that complexity of the situation should not hinder cooperation between NATO and Georgia. Regarding Armenia, there’s strong political force in Armenia that favors Brussels over Moscow. NATO can work with that political force and see what comes out of it


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s