Russia Turns On NATO Hopefuls To Stop Eastward Spread: Analysts

MOSCOW, Russia -- Moscow, which has failed since the break-up of the Soviet Union to prevent NATO's dramatic eastward expansion, is now turning pressure on the next two applicants, Georgia and Ukraine, in hopes of nipping their plans in the bud, analysts say.

NATO flag

More than two years after the three Baltic ex-Soviet states joined NATO, Russia and the Western military alliance remain at loggerheads.

Not even the formal Russia-NATO Council, set up in 2002 in the framework of the international campaign against terrorism, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, has managed to allay mutual mistrust.

Now, as NATO's 26 member states prepare for a summit in Riga on Tuesday and Wednesday, analysts say the Kremlin has changed tactics -- switching the focus of its diplomatic counter-offensive from NATO headquarters in Brussels to the next would-be members of NATO.

"Russia understood that instead of trying to fight the enlargement Brussels has already decided upon, it is more useful to dissuade candidates from joining," Ivan Safranchuk of the Center for Defense Information explained.

Viktor Kremenyuk of the USA-Canada Institute said that although Moscow still seeks a working partnership with NATO, Russia wants to draw a red line under the possibility of expansion reaching Georgia, Ukraine, or Moldova.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned of "colossal geopolitical upheaval" if Georgia and Ukraine join NATO.

Like most ex-Soviet countries, these Western-leaning, would-be NATO members remain tied in a number of ways to Russia.

For example, in order to join NATO, Georgia would first have to quit the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of 12 former Soviet republics.

"Georgia's joining NATO would mean a complete re-working of bilateral ties between the two countries," Kremenyuk said.

Georgia also depends on Russia for its energy -- oil, gas and electricity -- while its products, particularly agricultural, are exported mostly to Russia.

Moscow was furious when the impoverished Caucasus nation began an "intensified dialogue" with NATO in September, an important, if limited step on the road toward membership.

After Georgia broke up an alleged Russian spy ring a short time later, Russia imposed punishing economic sanctions and closed its border to all traffic, sparking the worst crisis in Georgia-Russian relations since the Soviet collapse.

On Sunday, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov pinned the blame on Georgia and NATO.

"The general tension is due above all to the fact that the Georgian leadership, with the help of those one could call 'NATO's young converts' and potential NATO candidates, is actively re-arming Georgia."

Russia is equally opposed to Ukraine joining NATO, but knows the chances of this happening are less clear.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who led the pro-Western "orange revolution" two years ago, is still pushing for NATO membership. However, he has lost much of his influence to pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovich, now the country's prime minister.

During his September visit to Brussels, Yanukovich declared that Ukraine was not ready for rapid integration with NATO.

Source: AFP