/ 2 April 2008

Bush sets up Nato clash over Ukraine, Georgia

United States President George Bush set the stage for a clash at his last Nato summit on Wednesday by pressing reluctant West European allies to set former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine on a path to membership.

He also urged allies to follow the example of France and host nation Romania in providing extra troops for Nato’s battle against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.

”If we do not defeat the terrorists in Afghanistan, we will face them on our soil,” he said in a keynote speech, hours before leaders of the 26-nation defence alliance were to open a three-day summit.

Bush said the West should reward democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia by giving both countries a prospect of joining Nato, although Russia has opposed this.

”My country’s position is clear — Nato should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the membership action plan (MAP),” he said.

”The Cold War is over. Russia is not our enemy. We are looking to a new security relationship with Russia,” he said.

Looking ahead to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the weekend, Bush said there could be an unprecedented level of strategic cooperation with Moscow on missile defence and arms control.

France and Germany, backed by several smaller countries, have said neither Ukraine nor Georgia yet meets Nato’s criteria and the decision would be an unnecessary provocation to Moscow just before President-elect Dmitry Medvedev takes office.

At stake is whether Nato pushes its European borders right up to the frontiers of Russia, with the exception of Belarus, or leaves a strategic buffer zone as the Kremlin wishes.

Tough talk

Diplomats said the issue would be thrashed out at an opening summit dinner, when Bush will meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and fellow leaders.

Since the decision requires unanimity, Washington would probably have to settle for a ”road map” to closer cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia and a commitment to review the issue at next year’s 60th anniversary summit, they said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quoted as saying Nato should not strain ties with Moscow beyond ”the limit of the manageable” by supporting their request for a MAP, a gateway to eventual membership.

Ukraine and Georgia would instead be offered ”a whole range of very practical and concrete steps to deepen ties” with Nato, Steinmeier told the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper.

One senior Nato diplomat believed the prospect of agreement on membership plans at the summit was already lost and expected the United States to change tack and seek firm commitments that the two should not have to wait too much longer.

”The real issue now is how hard the United States will try to push for France and Germany to make a commitment to MAP [for Ukraine and Georgia] in 2009,” said the diplomat.

Another uncertain decision facing the summit leaders was over Macedonia’s candidacy for Nato membership. Greece has threatened to veto Skopje’s entry over an unresolved dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name.

Bush made clear Washington wanted Macedonia, along with Croatia and Albania, to be invited to join this week. But the diplomats said if Athens did not yield, leaders might have to issue a conditional invitation to Skopje, to be ratified once the name dispute was settled.

Some fear Macedonia’s exclusion would plunge it into a new political crisis, with repercussions for a region already on tenterhooks over Kosovo’s February 17 secession from Serbia.

Diplomats have sketched a possible trade-off, in which Moscow would accept US plans to deploy its anti-missile defence shield in central Europe and Washington would accept a delay in the Georgian and Ukrainian Nato bids. US officials insist no such deal is on the table. – Reuters