NATO Deal Built on Ambiguity

APPresident Vladimir Putin gesturing as he addresses a news conference at the NATO summit in Bucharest on Friday.
BUCHAREST, Romania -- The Americans are delighted, the Georgians and Ukrainians elated, the French and Germans happy, and the Russians not too angry.

NATO's hard-fought compromise -- declaring that Georgia and Ukraine will one day join the alliance without setting them on an immediate path to membership -- was a masterpiece of creative ambiguity.

To the question "Will there be a buffer zone between Russia and the West?" NATO has answered "No" in the long term, but "Yes" in the short term. And the short term may last a while.

President Vladimir Putin voiced Moscow's concerns after his final NATO-Russia summit on Friday, saying he was pleased with the outcome but: "The appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders would be taken in Russia as a direct threat."

Yet while pro-Western leaders in Kiev and Tbilisi rejoice at being officially embraced as future members, Moscow is reassured that NATO refrained from giving a Membership Action Plan to two countries it considers in its sphere of influence.

In Russian eyes, everything is still to play for.

"What was important for us in the outcome of this debate was that we saw we have partners in Europe who earnestly want to listen to our opinion," a member of Putin's delegation said.

A NATO official said it was a perfect compromise: "Everyone goes home happy, and the outcome doesn't destroy the prospect of a U.S.-Russian deal on arms control and cooperation."

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer denied that there was any ambiguity about the communique, which welcomed Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations and said: "We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.

"I stand to be corrected if this sentence leaves a shimmer of a doubt," he said.

European diplomats put a different spin on the outcome, saying they had not signed up to any date for a decision on a membership plan.

Participants said the United States pressed for a hard commitment to make the decision when NATO foreign ministers meet in December.

Instead, the communique merely said the ministers would "make a first assessment of progress" then.

"It is unthinkable that the reservations will have fallen away by that meeting," said an official from one of the reluctant West European states.

Germany, France and several other West European allies said Ukraine lacked public support for NATO and that Georgia did not control all its territory because of frozen conflicts with Russian-backed rebels.

Democracy is seen as fragile in both countries, with a high risk of destabilization by pro-Russian forces if U.S.-backed leaders pursue a headlong dash to the West.

French officials asked whether NATO would invoke its Article V mutual defense clause if Georgian and Russian troops clashed in the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski was so incensed with such arguments that he wrote to NATO leaders recalling that when West Germany was admitted to the alliance in 1955, there was no international agreement on its borders, and part of the territory it claimed was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Some European officials were surprised at Bush's push for membership plan status for Ukraine and Georgia, because German Chancellor Angela Merkel had signaled privately a year ago and then in public last month that she would not back it.

Many said the decision would be an unnecessary provocation to President-elect Dmitry Medvedev at a time when the West wanted to explore the scope for better relations with Russia.

"Bush obviously cared more about his legacy. He knew he wouldn't prevail, but he wanted to put on record his support for the democracies in Eastern Europe," the European official said.

U.S. officials said privately that some Europeans wanted to allow Moscow a veto over a NATO decision, and that it would be better to get the deed done before Medvedev took office.

The U.S. officials saw the issue as a split between what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called "old" and "new" Europe, not between Washington and its European allies.

Once it became clear Wednesday that there was no agreement on the membership plan, de Hoop Scheffer drafted a compromise to postpone the decision until December. That text did not include a pledge of membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

The NATO chief put it to an inner circle of allies over breakfast on Thursday, but France and Germany rejected any firm date for the decision, NATO sources said.

As the summit proceeded, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held frantic bilateral contacts with Merkel and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on the sidelines.

It was Rice who proposed the final formula, picking up on a line in French President Nicolas Sarkozy's speech to the summit: "These two countries have a vocation to join NATO."

When, or whether, the Bucharest pledge will be put into practice remains to be seen.