History Repeats Itself in Ukraine: Crisis Holds Hard Lessons for NATO Leadership

March 17, 2014

Sally Painter, a board member of the Truman National Security Project, and COO of Blue Star Strategies, is a regional expert for Central and Eastern Europe. She has served as senior advisor to the Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration. In the past years, Ms. Painter works as a strategist and advisor to foreign governments, political parties and international companies. Ms. Painter has represented and advised the last 10 countries in the process of NATO accession and the US Visa waiver.  Views expressed are her own.

Since the pivotal year of 2008, Europe and its immediate neighbors have faced insecurity and crisis. From the lingering stagnation from the global financial crisis, to upheaval in streets and parliament buildings from Greece to Spain, to the current emergency facing Ukraine, the European community is in need of strong leadership more now than ever before.

2008 was also the year, not coincidentally, that the NATO expansion process stalled from which it has yet to recover, threatening one of Europe’s bedrock institutions of common stability. In order for Europe to recover its momentum, and once again fulfill its unifying role, the NATO alliance must begin living up to its own ideals.

Indeed, much of the current crisis hanging over Europe – rising threats from outside its borders to instability within – can be traced to the failure of the 2008 NATO Summit held in Bucharest, Romania. At Bucharest, the project of enlargement ran aground when NATO allowed Greece to effectively veto the accession process of neighboring Macedonia over a petty bilateral naming dispute. Indicative of a broader malaise, Ukraine and Georgia, which were promised Membership Action Plans (MAP) for entrance into NATO, were tragically put on hold.

These were shameful results for an organization based on the principle of a “Europe Whole and Free.” The message sent at Bucharest was clear: Europe’s commitment to unity and enlargement was flagging, and could be held hostage by irrelevant regional squabbles and a lack of vision.

Unfortunately, leaders were paying close attention to the weakening of European leadership. Only months after NATO’s failure to follow through with its MAP promises, Russia seized the moment to overwhelm Georgia’s smaller forces and invade the country in response to clashes in the South Ossetia region.

To those who followed the 2008 Georgia crisis closely, recent events in Ukraine have an eerie similarity. The repeated missed opportunities of the European agenda, from Bucharest to the EU accession process, have come to a head in Ukraine, and make the choices facing EU leaders even more stark.

The failure of Ukraine to receive a Membership Accession Plan in 2008 sent it down a path increasingly distant from Europe, and heightening the kind of internal ethnic and territorial divisions that Russia is expert at exploiting. Its pro-Russia leadership turned away from the NATO process altogether after 2010, and vacillated between competing allegiances to the EU accession process on the one hand, and Russia’s potent mix of carrots and sticks, on the other.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych clearly miscalculated his people’s willingness to forgo closer ties with Europe, and the type of political and economic reforms that such ties would bring with them. Yet his gamble – that Europe and Ukraine were not invested enough in a partnership for it to matter if he sided with Russia instead – was enabled by the faltering of NATO and the EU. And even if Ukraine eventually ends up moving closer to Europe, the costs will have been extremely high – in bloodshed, in internal division and discord, in the financial costs of supporting Ukraine’s economy, and in the vulnerability of Crimea to an opportunistic Russia.

Then there is the case of Macedonia, a stable democracy at the crossroads of the Balkans, whose NATO accession has been repeatedly held up over a naming dispute with NATO member Greece. Are we going to let the Greeks continue to thumb their nose at the Alliance over Macedonia? An organization like NATO should be ashamed of denying entry to a qualified, dedicated partner for no other reason than an isolated naming dispute that only impacts one of their members. This, despite the fact that Macedonia has fulfilled all obligations for membership, and reliably participates in critical NATO missions.

Macedonia, perhaps more than any other example, demonstrates the “enlargement fatigue” and lack of leadership of U.S. and European leaders. It is a logical and exemplary candidate for membership, yet finds itself blocked for reasons that have nothing to do with NATO’s mission, operations, or goals. Occupying a strategic location, with a growing economy bolstered by US companies seeking to supply the European market, and living in peace with all of its neighbors, including Greece, Macedonia is a model of the type of European success NATO seeks to encourage and support.

Yet it seems as if NATO leadership has learned nothing from the string of recent crises, and there is not much evidence that things will change at the September 2014 Summit, which will be third held since Bucharest. During the Clinton and Bush Administrations, leaders pushed for significant expansion despite the opposition of key alliance members, because they recognized enlargement as central to the success of the European project. But now, the intransigence of a single small member is enough to bring the process to a halt.

NATO officials have chafed over a recent International Court of Justice (IJC) ruling against Greece for “violating its obligations” in blocking Macedonia from accession. Yet, they should recognize that this is the price – a worthwhile one – of participating in international institutions. A similar dynamic was at play when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) lost, to its chagrin, a discrimination case for banning female ski jumpers. At the 2014 Olympics the IOC corrected its mistake.

The leaders of the US and the EU, however, have yet to correct their mistake. They shouldn’t need a ruling from the ICJ to tell them that their negligence to follow through with the basic commitments to enlargement have had far-reaching and disastrous consequences for the stability and integrity of Europe. Hopefully, the 2014 Summit will see a change of heart – and it would not be a moment too soon.