Friday, 17 October 2008

Afghanistan Drowns Out Important Issues in Budapest

The main headlines that emerged from the informal Budapest Defence Ministers meeting concerned Afghanistan. Ministers agreed that NATO forces could go after drug producers, primarily as a means to cut off funding to the Taliban. However, as is often the case with NATO, the items that Ministers hoped journalists would concentrate on were not the most important ones to come out of the meeting.

Defending the Baltic States

NATO Monitor has already covered the controversy at the meeting over defence planning for military intervention in the Baltic States to prevent a Russian invasion. There is deep division amongst NATO ministers on this topic, and a NATO source contacted by NATO Monitor expressed irritation that this had risen to the political level at all. Had the authorities at SHAPE simply begun some contingency planning without any fuss, it may have gone unnoticed, our source said. By raising the question with ministers, SACEUR General Craddock has both divided the political leaders of the Alliance and guaranteed that any future exercises or planning activity will stir up acrimony with Russia.

Relations with Georgia

Understandably, the future nature of NATO contacts with Georgia was discussed in the main meeting, and on the margins. NATO was keen to signal political support for the Georgian government. Having decided to establish a NATO-Georgia Commission this Summer, in the wake of the Georgian conflict with Russia, Ministers met with their Georgian counterpart in this forum for the first time - promising "the coordination of assistance in areas such as defence and security cooperation, security sector reform and airspace management." (NATO's report can be found here).

However, for Georgia and for the United States, this was another opportunity to press for Georgian accession to the Alliance. US Defense Secretary Gates came into the meeting saying he would raise this with his colleagues. His goal was to have the North Atlantic Council meeting this coming December approve a Membership Action Plan for Georgia (and the Ukraine). A positive reaction in Budapest would make this easier. However, Chancellor Merkel of Germany has already ruled this out. Meeting with Russian President Medvedev on October 2, she told the media that it is too early to move ahead. (See a report here) Soundings amongst other NATO nations make it clear that Merkel has considerable support.

Other aspects of some NATO members' approach to Georgia have irritated Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer and the United States. Scheffer has expressed irritation that the French brokered peace deal allowed Russian troops to remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia indefinitely, although it is very hard to see how any other outcome could have been achieved. Further, the US has been prepared to indirectly support arms sales to Georgia to allow the rebuilding of military stockpiles destroyed by Russia during the short Summer war.

US experts have been advising the Ukraine on appropriate arms to supply, including anti-tank missiles. The Bush administration hold talks with Georgian representatives in Washington DC later this month about supplies of equipments and weapons for the Georgian military. NATO ministers discussed this informally in Budapest and ruled out Alliance support for rebuilding Georgia's military. Even influential members of Congress do not support the administration on this one. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee has ruled out the actual supply of weapons to Georgia.

In short, the US, with British and some Eastern European support, wants to continue the aggressive posture of pushing the boundaries of the relationship with Moscow through a step-change in relations with Georgia and other nations on Russia's periphery. Other NATO members have looked at the war this Summer and seen the potential for a new Cold War, and decided they want no part of it.


The needs of the continuing ISAF mission in Afghanistan continue to dominate NATO meetings, and media coverage of them. But some vital questions of European security are overlooked if tactical changes in Alliance operations are the only focus. NATO's interaction with Russia is, in the long term, much more significant for the future of the Alliance. And yet, these questions get relatively attention at present. The German Defence Minister Franz Jozef Jung told his colleagues that the NATO-Russia Council should be reactivated. With matters of enormous strategic importance to discuss, he is surely right. The outcome of the Afghnaistan mission is important to the future role of the Alliance, but relations with Russia are much more so.

If the confrontation over Georgia, and now over defending the Baltic States, cannot be resolved successfully then the outlook is bleak. Prolems that must be resolved include differences over missile defences, the CFE treaty and tactical nuclear weapons. Without agreement on these topics, a new Cold War looms on the horizon - and that is in no-one's interest.

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