Georgia-Russia conflict forces NATO rethink

The conflict between Georgia and Russia has brought NATO's relations with Moscow to a post-Cold War low, and left the western Alliance rethinking its role in this newest world order, analysts say.

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Amid rows over a US missile defence shield, independence for Kosovo and NATO perspectives for Georgia and Ukraine, the Atlantic Alliance had already seen relations with Russia become decidedly frostier over the last 18 months.

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On Tuesday those relations sank further as NATO foreign ministers berated Russia over its military actions in Georgia, called on it to withdraw its troops immediately and effectively suspended the NATO-Russia council.

The following day Norway received information that Russia was in turn freezing its military cooperation with NATO and allied countries until further notice.

For the first time since the Soviet Union broke up “Russia and America are not able to speak with each other about a very, very serious problem,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn at the NATO ministers meeting.

Political role

While the Alliance championed the territorial integrity of Georgia and repeated that Tbilisi's future is within NATO's ranks, some observers, while impressed by the level of jaw-jaw in Brussels, see NATO increasingly re-examining its military perspective.

“My guess is that after the Georgia war, the military role of NATO as opposed to the political role that it plays through enlargement, will become more important,” said Tomas Valasek, director of policy at the London-based Centre for European Reform.

“In the past we have drawn an assumption that confrontation with Russia is not going to be a reality in the foreseeable future. One of the lessons of the war in Georgia is of course that we may have to in the future back up our security guarantees with force,” he told AFP.

This means thinking very carefully about who you let into the club, which could be bad news for Georgia.

One school of thought within NATO is “that there are some countries who are not worth dying over,” said Valasek.

Cold War-lite

However he dismissed suggestions that a second Cold War was breaking out.

“Russia wants and seeks hegemony, but that is a far cry from seeking world domination or the annihilation of the opposing force, so it is not a cold war.

“We could call it a cold-war lite.”

The main split in NATO's ranks on how to handle Russia and on enlargement has pitted the likes of the US, Britain, Poland and the Baltic nations – more hardline on Moscow and more enthusiastic about expanding east – against France, Germany, Italy and others who are more reluctant to further damage ties with a resurgent and energy rich Russia.

For International Crisis Group analyst Nick Grono the message emanating from NATO is a strong one but “there is a very little it can do with practical measures”.

Regroup, reunify

“Neither side wants to revert to a Cold War-style confrontation, it is in neither of their interests, nor is it in Russia's interests to be challenged by a united group of western nations,” he said.

The new realpolitik leaves the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation needing to regroup and reunify.

“NATO needs to say: this is our vision and this is the way we are going to engage,” said Grono.

Daniel Korski of the European Council of Foreign Relations believes the Georgia-Russia conflict may turn out to be the “optimal crisis” to push forward a new NATO consensus.

“Nothing concentrates the mind like an enemy. What NATO has been suffering from since the end of the cold war is the lack of a clear enemy,” he said.

The consensus also reinforces NATO's raison d'etre but that, it is now recalled, is based on military capabilities. “That's why,” Valasek says, “we should be very careful about who we extend security guarantees to.”