March 27, 2008

Russia likely to dominate NATO agenda

CANADA has made some pretty harsh-sounding demands on NATO recently and a summit meeting the alliance is about to hold in Bucharest, Romania, is the perfect stage for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to restate them.

Mr. Harper wants NATO to find at least 1,000 soldiers to help Canadian troops as they fight the resurging Taliban in Afghanistan.

Of the few NATO allies actually slugging it out with the Taliban, Canadian forces are taking, proportionally, the highest casualties. This has gone on for years and it doesn’t surprise even the coolest conflict intellectuals in Washington that a bitter "enough is enough" sentiment is spreading in Canada.

In fact, if you look and listen carefully, you will discover a measure of understanding for Canada. But I think it would be foolish to read too much into this glimmer of sympathy. Canadians may be justifiably ticked off, but it doesn’t look as if Washington could or would do much to find the reinforcements Ottawa is demanding.

The question of additional troops from somewhere to help the Canadians was raised at a high-calibre briefing on Tuesday by experts on NATO offered by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think tank.

A journalist wanted to know whether Canadians would get the help they are asking for. The answer he got was revealing. "I don’t know," replied Stephen Flanagan, CSIS vice-president and Henry J. Kissinger professor in national security policy.

France is sending paratroopers to Afghanistan and the United States is sending in more Marines, he added, but he was "not sure" any of them would end up in the Canadian sector.

When they spoke on the phone on Jan. 30, President George W. Bush told Mr. Harper that an additional 3,200 U.S. Marines would be deployed to Afghanistan. The prime minister informed Mr. Bush that he would extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, but only if NATO comes up with the additional 1,000 combat soldiers.

I take it as a given that Afghanistan and the reluctance of many NATO members to do their share – or even to lift a finger – got plenty of caustic attention from American diplomats as they haggled over the communique that would be released when the NATO summit ends April 4.

But I’m not holding my breath that any country will march up its troops to help their Canadians allies.

The NATO summit will be dominated by a non-member of the club. Russia, I think, will push other concerns aside, including Canada’s demands.

Vladimir Putin, in his last hours as Russia’s president, is fuming at NATO’s attempt to enfold Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet republics, in the Western alliance.

He will also use Germany, Spain and, possibly, Paris to block the United States from setting up missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Mr. Putin could not seek a third term as head of state, but nobody in Washington believes he will become merely head of government. His successor, Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, was elected president March 2, and the two are merely flipping jobs – but not power.

For Vladimir Putin, much is riding on what happens in Kiev and in Bucharest, NATO’s capital for the duration of the summit. Mr. Bush will give a speech in Ukraine’s capital just before the NATO summit. He knows what he wants. He knows what Ukraine and Georgia expect and that the intensity of political expectation in both capitals cannot be overstated.

Both have been led to believe they will be given their internal political road maps to NATO membership. That’s why what Mr. Bush says will be either a go-ahead or a promise of a go-ahead signal, as the CSIS’s Mr. Flanagan speculated.

Any American compromise on Ukraine and Georgia, the CSIS expert said, would tell Russia "we are not serious."

Anti-missile bases in Poland and Czech Republic are the second bomb ticking in NATO. Janusz Bugajski, director of CSIS’s new democracies project, pointed out that "within the last 24 hours" – as of last Tuesday noon – Russia threatened to split up Ukraine when it raised claims to the Crimea.

On anti-missile bases, Russia threatens Poland with nuclear weapons "every two weeks."

Russia’s threats would be sound and fury if NATO were united on both, the Polish and Czech bases and Ukraine and Georgia. But NATO is not united, with Berlin and Paris, to name just two allies, at odds with Mr. Bush’s plans.

George W. Bush told Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, when they met at the White House on March 10, the anti-missile bases would be affirmed "on my watch."

He assured Ukraine and Georgia in the past that the United States is determined to see them in NATO. That’s why what Mr. Bush presents in Kiev when he speaks next Tuesday will be either an American marker or, at least for Moscow, an April Fool’s Day card.


Bogdan Kipling is a Canadian journalist in Washington

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