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Putin has a point

It isn’t often that we take Vladimir V. Putin’s side on issues of international governance, but the bellicose Russian president is right about the matter expected to dominate this week’s NATO summit: Ukraine and Georgia don’t belong in the alliance. At least not yet.

President Bush spent Tuesday in Ukraine talking up that country’s membership bid, part of an ongoing administration strategy backing NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. For Bush, a larger NATO means more potential allies willing to contribute troops to the struggle in Afghanistan, still largely an American project despite the alliance’s approval of the invasion. With much of Western Europe deeply reluctant to put its soldiers in harm’s way, the East represents the best hope for relieving the pressure on U.S. forces. But that short-term benefit has to be balanced against the many long-term problems associated with an expanded NATO.

In the first place, there’s the fact that the larger the organization grows, the more unwieldy it becomes. NATO’s decisions are made by consensus, which is far harder to achieve as it adds members with broadly divergent security interests. For an example of the institutional paralysis likely to result, see the United Nations.

Second, adding Ukraine and Georgia to the 26-member alliance would needlessly antagonize Russia. Moscow and the West made an implicit deal amid the collapse of the Soviet Union: Russia would allow German reunification and pull its troops out of Eastern Europe as long as NATO didn’t expand eastward. The betrayal of that trust infuriates and frightens the Russian people, fueling nationalism and insecurity that have strengthened the current autocratic regime. With the Cold War imperative of containing Russia now long outdated, there is no compelling security reason to add former Soviet republics to the alliance, while doing so harms our relations with a country whose support is critical in resolving dangerous conflicts with Iran and other nations.

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Lastly, the two potential members come with serious risks attached. Both are young, and not entirely stable, democracies riddled with corruption and internal dissent. The majority of the Ukrainian people oppose membership, and Georgia is rent by a secession movement in two pro-Russia regions. Not many Americans would favor sending their sons to die defending Tbilisi, but that’s precisely what they would be committed to do with Georgia in the alliance.

The door should not be slammed in their faces, but neither the two countries themselves, nor Russia, nor NATO is ready for them to start on the path to membership. Let’s talk in 2010.


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