NATO Should Protect Ukraine and Georgia

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The April NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, could well be dominated by debate over how the alliance can succeed in Afghanistan. But another topic, barely discussed so far, may be almost as important: whether NATO can extend its last major mission of expanding Europe's zone of security to former communist countries.

Since NATO was created to defend the West against the Soviet Union, its greatest accomplishment may have been its role in consolidating democracy in Romania and nine other former Eastern Bloc states, then admitting them to its ranks in two successive waves in 1999 and 2004. The process paved the way for the expansion of the European Union, ended the continent's Cold War division, and ensured that liberal values would define its future. But it left out some critical places: most of the former Yugoslavia as well as the former Soviet republics of southeastern Europe.

The Bucharest summit is set to decide whether two of the former parts of Yugoslavia -- Croatia and Macedonia -- as well as nearby Albania should be offered full membership. At the same time, the alliance owes answers to Ukraine and Georgia, both of which have formally asked NATO for a Membership Action Plan, the bureaucratic vehicle used to guide countries through military and democratic reforms. The decisions are harder than those of the past because of the greater instability of those two countries and the greater resistance of Russia to further NATO expansion. At a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels last week, Germany and France spoke up against Ukraine and Georgia, largely out of fear of offending Moscow.

For just those reasons, the United States should push the alliance to move forward. Russia's repeated and heavy-handed maneuvers against Ukraine and Georgia in the past several years have dramatically demonstrated Moscow's ambition to destroy those countries' freedom and independence. President Vladimir Putin's recent threat to target Ukraine with nuclear weapons should have been a wake-up call for any Western government that doubted whether Ukraine needed defending.

While the U.S. administration is clearly sympathetic to the two states, it has held back from pressing its case with the reluctant Europeans. Yet Putin surely will regard a failure by the Bucharest summit to act on Ukraine and Georgia as an admission that they are outside its sphere and an invitation to escalate his bullying. President George W. Bush, who oversaw NATO's last expansion eastward, should reinforce that legacy by insisting that the alliance reach out to these threatened democracies.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.