Russia has, for now, declared a halt to its military attacks in neighboring Georgia after noting with some satisfaction that the former Soviet republic had been "punished" and its military left "disorganized." Whether any new deals will secure some measure of peace in the face of Russian demands that Georgia's American-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili step down—and after the death of perhaps 2,000 or more civilians—is another matter.
But behind the scenes, a pressing question within military and diplomatic circles is whether this week's fighting will mean an end to Georgia's hopes to joint the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, membership that President Bush has strongly backed.
The answer almost certainly seems to be yes, since NATO now is likely to have second thoughts about moving quickly to extend security guarantees to a nation with a festering border dispute with Moscow.
More broadly, there is now the question, too, of whether the political fallout will extend to other one-time Soviet states, such as Ukraine, that are seeking membership and protection under the NATO security umbrella.
The United States, Canada, and much of central Europe lobbied hard for Georgia's admission to the alliance at the NATO summit in Bucharest last April. But western European members, seemingly swayed by Russia's very public opposition to NATO's expansion, ultimately voted against granting a membership action plan, or MAP—the first step in NATO membership—to Georgia and Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government very much wants to be a part of a Russian oil pipeline project, said that "Russia's legitimate security concerns" had to be taken into account. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon added that the country opposed membership "because we think it is not the right response to the balance of power in Europe—and between Europe and Russia—and we want to have a dialogue with Russia on the subject." Russia, which deeply resents the notion of NATO member nations on its doorstep, registered its approval of the development, calling it a "diplomatic victory."
At the time, France and Germany added that a membership plan for the two nations was simply a matter of time. NATO officials scheduled a MAP discussion at a meeting of foreign ministers in December.
Today, Georgia's prospects for membership don't look good. "I think the current conflict has moved us away from the MAP plan. Moving forward wouldn't be a great idea," says one European Union official. "When you look at it, we feel validated."
The violence this week, and the events that precipitated it, have raised some new concerns as well. "It makes you ask about Georgia's motives for joining NATO," adds the official, positing that one motive might be an expectation of protection on the heels of its attempts to retake by force its breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has expressed a desire to become part of Russia. And the willingness to undertake such military campaigns is not what NATO is currently looking for in expanding its membership. "This," he says, "is an alliance of responsibility."
Few would dispute the notion that Georgian President Saakashvili is a hothead who made a strategic error in attacking South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali (and declaring that he was at war with Russia). But many also believe—judging by the speed with which Russian tanks and fighter planes arrived on the scene—that Saakashvili was baited as well. "No one was guilt free in the conflict," says Janusz Bugajski, the director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Would events have gone differently if Georgia were part of NATO? Russia might not have acted, Bugajski and others add, had Georgia's NATO bid not been pushed off. "Russia saw this as a green light," he says.
Clearly, this is a big hypothetical. "If you could prove beforehand that had NATO extended the MAP, nothing would have happened, then, sure, that looks like an obviously good outcome," says Justin Logan, associate director of foreign policy studies at the conservative Cato Institute. "It certainly would have raised the stakes of intervention in Russia's mind."
Had it been granted a MAP bid, though, Georgia still would not have fallen under the NATO treaty's Article 5—that an attack against one member is an attack against all—since it wouldn't have full membership yet (a process that could as long as eight or nine years). But even MAP status might have increased the possibility of a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia, Logan adds. "The Russians could easily have said, with the MAP in place, 'We'll call the U.S.'s bluff. They don't live here, and we don't think they'll do anything,' " he says.
What's more, if Georgia were under a MAP, that might have made an agitated Russia more likely to act aggressively. At minimum, it increases the chances of reckless brinksmanship among both countries, says Logan. "When your credibility is on the line, it's a very dangerous situation, having these bluffs called."
But that, some argue, is what is happening now. Russia is currently testing the West, they argue—and western response could set a dangerous precedent. "Russians think, 'If we attack, then that country is automatically excluded from western institutions like NATO,'" says Bugajski. "A country that's under occupation, with its territory severed and its capital on fire, is not a NATO country. It's is not an EU country," he adds. "And Russia is counting on this."
And that could also spell trouble for Ukraine, which has threatened to bar Russian warships from returning to their centuries-old port in there. "Through its actions, Russia is sending a message not just to Georgia but to Ukraine," says David Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "It's 'Russia is back,' " he says. "And upstarts will be treated very harshly."