|Nato plays it cool over Georgia and Ukraine|
|Sunday, 30 November 2008|
Michael Evans, Defence Editor
Nato foreign ministers will attempt to avoid a diplomatic row with Moscow tomorrow when they deny Georgia and Ukraine the opportunity to take the first step towards guaranteed membership of the alliance.
The two former Russian satellite countries have been waiting for eight months to see whether their friends in the West would let them participate in Nato's membership action plan (MAP) - the formal programme of training and assistance that leads to joining the club.
Now, at British government bidding, foreign ministers have come up with a new formula of words and action that will keep the two countries linked to Nato but without putting them on the normal pathway to membership. The move is being seen as part snub to Georgia and Ukraine and part concession to Moscow.
At the Nato summit in Bucharest last April, alliance governments agreed that Georgia and Ukraine should be allowed to become members at some stage but, despite American pressure to begin the process immediately, France, Germany and Italy demurred, worried about Moscow's reaction. Alliance foreign ministers were ordered to review the situation in December.
There was some optimism at that stage that tomorrow's meeting would be the historic moment when Georgia and Ukraine were drawn officially into Nato's embrace.
That all changed during the war in Georgia in August when Russian troops entered the country after the Georgian leader launched an abortive attempt to seize back control of South Ossetia, the pro-Moscow breakaway region. Nato diplomatic sources said yesterday that MAP had become a “three-letter dirty word” because it signalled to the rest of the world, and particularly Russia, that once Georgia and Ukraine had been approved for the membership process they were as good as paid-up members of the alliance.
British officials said that several post-Cold War Nato members, such as the Czech Republic, had avoided having to go through the MAP programme, but countries such as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had to toil for ten years to merit membership.
Under the formula that will be laid before foreign ministers meeting in Brussels tomorrow, the MAP programme will be bypassed and in its place Georgia and Ukraine will be offered their own special tailor-made arrangements but without any sense of a timetable or deadline for eventual membership.
The countries already have a partnership with the alliance and tomorrow Nato's foreign ministers will be asked to approve a more structured relationship in each case, guaranteeing regular military exchanges and long-term help in transforming their armed forces.
There will be concessionary moves towards Russia. Nato suspended military ties with Moscow after the invasion of Georgia, but there is general agreement that relations have to be improved.
Moscow will undoubtedly view Nato's decision to avoid the MAP trap in the case of Georgia and Ukraine as a diplomatic victory. But Nato diplomats said there was no going back on the Bucharest summit pledge about future membership for the two countries. “If they want to join the alliance, they will be reassured that it will happen in due course,” one diplomat said.
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