NATO Ministers finished a series of meetings in Brussels tonight. There is no communique, that will be issued after further meetings on Wednesday. However, some outlines of the results of major discussions are clear.
The controversial question of extending membership to Georgia and the Ukraine loomed large. Bush administration hopes of either offering MAPs to membership for the two aspirant nations, or alternatively finding a different route to membership, came to nothing. A number of different options were explored, but in the end the opposition of Germany, France, Spain, Italy could not be overcome. Instead, NATO agreed, without providing any public detail, to strengthen the NATO-Georgia and NATO-Ukraine Commissions, providing more information and assistance on security reforms through 'annual national programmes'.
Ministers also decided to re-engage with Russia, initially on an informal basis, in the NATO-Russia Council to allow discussion of issues of mutual concern. In the press conference, Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer took a hard line, describing Russian recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence as 'illegal', and condemning the Russian threat to place nuclear Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad as a response to the proposed deployment of US missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic. He did say though that "Russia is an important player. Russia is an important player on many dossiers, which are also on the NATO agenda. So the catchphrase is a conditional and graduated re-engagement and the mandate given to me as the Secretary General of NATO."
NATO is faced with a difficult set of decisions here. Many of the new members would like to take a very strong position against Russia, but few beyond Eastern Europe want the relationship mired in confrontation. This goes to the heart of debate about NATO's role - is it a purely military defence organisation, or is it about global security? The older NATO members have created a new NATO, but Poland, the Baltic States and other have joined the Alliance and want it to be the Old NATO. This will make the Strategic Concept debate very difficult.
Another item to be noted is the decline in the influence of the Bush administration. A month or so before the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama the US has not been able to impose its vision for Georgia, the Ukraine and for NATO-Russia relations on its allies.