Time for daring in an age of ambivalence: Making the case for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine

April 2004

Flags of the 26 member countries of NATO,
NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium.
  • By defencematters

Is it the right time for NATO at its forthcoming Summit in Warsaw on 8-9 July 2016 to invite Georgia and Ukraine into its ranks?

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou

A question has been on my mind a lot recently. It has to do with whether this is the right time for NATO at its forthcoming Summit in Warsaw on 8-9 July 2016 to invite Georgia and Ukraine into its ranks. This question, or better said this instinctive belief, has been further strengthened with Russia’s tour de force performance in Syria in its perennial quest to be recognized as a global power that is respected and consulted on anything that happens in this planet in a vain attempt to erase the memory of its Crimea annexation, and continued presence in the battleground of Donbas. After all, the days of Bosnia and Kosovo when the West acted and dictated the terms of peace in the Balkans in the 1990s seem to have been replaced by its nervous ambivalence as to how to deal with an ever more aggressive, belligerent, and unstable Russian Federation that showed its teeth for the first time during its brief five-day war with Georgia and has since its annexation of Crimea propounded that its actions are legitimate under international law.

The address by President Putin on 18 March 2014 justifying the annexation of Crimea in conformity with the rules of international law is a masterpiece of adopting and adapting norms that seem alien to him and his government when he says:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

Putin’s Russia has not sat still with its attempts to establish the Eurasian alternative in the form of the Eurasian Union imbibed in the ideology of eurasianism which according to David Lane “involves a set of ideas set in the history, institutions and values” of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union and includes “values generated by the shared historical experience of Russian speakers, the conservative religious teachings of the Orthodox Church, the collective role of a state legitimated by a strong leader, and the responsibility of institutions to ‘serve the people’.”[1] All of this is in reaction or in opposition to the West, the ‘Other’, represented by neoliberalism and globalization.

Why is the aforementioned relevant? For the simple reason that for eurasianism to become pertinent, the use of force is necessary to keep neighbors and the international community in tow. After all, thenRussian President Dimitri Medvedev admitted in 2011 that “NATO would have expanded by now to admit ex-Soviet republics if Russia had not invaded Georgia in 2008 to defend a rebel region.”

Albeit the Russian presence on Georgian and Ukrainian territory, support in both countries for joining the Alliance is very high. The change in attitudes in Ukraine has been nothing short than remarkable. While in 2009, NATO membership was supported by only 21 percent of Ukrainians while some 60 percent were opposed; a July 2015 poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation suggests that in a hypothetical referendum 64% would support NATO accession.[2] In Georgia, the support for NATO membership is even greater. In fact, a February 2015 poll by the International Republican Institute Georgia shows support to be at 78%.[3]

All of this comes at a time when perceptions regarding Russia and Putin are rather low across the globe. According to an August 2015 Pew Research Center survey, a “median of only 24% in the countries surveyed have confidence in Putin to do the right thing in world affairs”. [4]

Yet a combination of concerted efforts by Russia and the international community as well as circumstance have enhanced Russia’s global standing; the question is whether this needs to come at a cost of leaving Georgia and Ukraine outside the western security system that they aspire to join. With Russia’s contribution as a constructive great power in ensuring that the deal between Iran and the P3 + 3 in July and its participation in the Minsk talks regarding Ukraine, it has managed to fundamentally reverse its image as an international pariah by forcing the rest of the international community to take a more forceful stance in Syria and promoting the idea that ISIS can only be defeated if the Bashar al-Assad regime stays in power. The Paris attacks have also prompted “a geopolitical shift” in the West making Russia a privileged partner in the fight against international terrorism.

What does this mean for the fate of Ukraine and Georgia? They risk being ‘sacrificed’ to the expediencies of the times where for the sake of a united front against terrorism, collective defense is likely to dominate the agenda of the Warsaw Summit rather than further enlargement. The decision to invite Montenegro only, although valid and welcome for the stability and security of South Eastern Europe, plays lip service to the notion that NATO enlargement is always on the Alliance’s agenda; it is also a sign of the times that enlargement is nowhere near being a top priority. It is also a signal that a country like Georgia, a frontline state that has paid the price of its pro-western choices, a country that has met all its obligations under MAP and has completed its Individual Partnership Action Plan will pay the price of the burden of its geography and will never be able to fully escape from Russia’s clutches.[5]  The same applies to a less stellar pupil but one who is developing a growing political consensus on NATO accession – Ukraine.

The tactical choice by the West of placating Russia has taken precedence over the strategic choice of enlargement and providing a bulwark against the very real possibility of an eventual decline of an ever more belligerent Putin regime in a weak country that will use all means at its disposal to maintain itself in power. Is the price of leaving Ukraine and Georgia to the vultures worth it? Even if Putin’s Russia today has become an indispensible and constructive player on the international stage, it does so because it considers it important for its national interest. Why should the Alliance’s enlargement strategy have to suffer as a result? In fact, this may be the right time for enlargement as it is in the West’s interest to enhance its normative liberal democratic space. After all, the damage to the sovereignty of both Georgia and Ukraine has already been done, as Russia cannot afford to challenge them any further lest it is willing to risk national suicide as the onus of the use of “the rule of the gun”, that Putin blames the West of, would fall upon him and his regime.


*Assoc. Prof. Dimitrios Triantaphyllou is Chair at the Department of International Relations and Director at the Center for International and European Studies (CIES), Kadir Has University, Istanbul


[1] David Lane, “Introduction,” in David Lane and Vsevolod Samokhvalov (eds.), The Eurasian Project and Europe – Regional Discontinuities and Geopolitics, (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2015), pp. 6-7.

[2] Ievgen Vorobiov, “Surprise! Ukraine Loves NATO”, Foreign Policy, 13 August 2015.

[3] International Republican Institute, “IRI Georgia Poll: Georgians are Less Optimistic, Continue to Desire Deeper Ties with the West, Wary of Perceived Russian Threat, Concerned Regarding Economy”, 31 March 2015.

[4] Bruce Stokes, “Russia, Putin Held in Low Regard around the World - Russia’s Image Trails U.S. across All Regions”, Pew Research Center, 5 August 2015.

[5] For more on Georgia’s NATO standing, see Tatia Dolidze, “NATO Credibility Crisis and Post-Crimea Enlargement: Cases of Georgia and Montenegro”, Beyond the EU, 26 November 2015.