by David A. Merkel
Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David A. Merkel considers the ways in which the United States can encourage progress in Europe's eastern neighborhood absent a realistic open door to NATO or the European Union.
In the early decades of the 21st Century, the continuing strategic importance of Central Europe cannot be overstated or denied. European stability and prosperity has extended to the former Eastern bloc countries due to the vision, courage and perseverance of leaders and ordinary citizens. However, the dream of a Europe whole, free and at peace remains unfinished business until countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus find their place in a common European home.
The global and regional situation has changed since President Bill Clinton, spurred by the U.S. Congress, began the process of NATO enlargement. Continued and expanded by President George W. Bush, NATO grew to include former Warsaw Pact members and the European Union (EU) increased to 27 countries. Along the way, the promise of security guarantees and the economic prosperity that would come with increased stability and eventual membership in the EU were used as leverage with the aspirant countries to resolve thorny issues with their neighbors and impose needed domestic reform. This process led to greater democratic stability and prosperity for countries whose citizens were once denied the opportunities enjoyed by their neighbors to the West.
But times have changed. Through the 1999 and 2004 rounds of NATO enlargement, the Kremlin was unable to affect the decision of the alliance, but it never envisioned a larger NATO, moving closer to its borders, as in its interests. When the discussion in Brussels and NATO capitals turned to Ukraine's or Georgia's focus on the Membership Action Plan, a stronger, more confident Moscow flexed its muscle and applied the brakes.
So how can we continue to encourage progress in these countries minus a realistic open door to NATO or the EU? How can we enhance stability minus the tool of membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions? The Obama Administration could look to the United Kingdom's balance of power policy from the 1800s. London would typically side with the weaker country to check the ambitions of the more dominant. Thus, England sided with Germany and Russia against France and then with France against Germany, all in the pursuit of stability on the continent. In today's context, America would do well to reinforce strategic linkages with countries in Europe's east, those with no near term prospects of NATO or EU membership to enhance their sovereignty. At the same time, the United States should check the Kremlin's ambitions, making clear that Moscow has no privileged sphere of influence over its neighbors.
Recognizing that the United States cannot offer the reward of alliance membership, and clearly it is not the only player in the neighborhood, we will ultimately have to work harder and expect less. The Obama Administration will need to re-evaluate its "reset" approach with a willingness to champion issues that are important to America's interest and to Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.
Moldova provides a real breakout possibility. Should the elections in late November return a stronger coalition able to select a new president, the United States and Europe will need to demonstrate a willingness to go to bat on mutually important issues. We should take advantage of next month's summit of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), under Kazakhstan's able chairmanship, and push for a real settlement to the Transnistria conflict, one that respects the principle of host-country consent by insisting - at the highest level - that Russian troops be removed. It is obvious that these troops, operating under the thin veil of "CIS Peacekeepers," serve no other purpose but to intimidate Chisinau. The United States, along with the EU and Ukraine, must engage interested parties on both sides of the conflict to demonstrate that a settlement will be one where the interests of all are considered.
In Ukraine, we must not look at the government as pro-Europe or pro-Russia but offer support when decisions are made that are in America's long term interest. While many in the United States and Europe question the current leadership in Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych was the clear choice of the Ukrainian people. Moscow has benefitted from Yanukovych's decisions, such as extending the lease on the Sevastopol naval base for 25 years in exchange for cheap gas. However, one thing is certain: Moscow will over-play its hand and insert itself into the business of its neighbor, where it is unwelcome. What needs to be made clear is that the United States supports Ukraine's sovereignty. The Obama Administration would be wise to look to the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership, negotiated in the final months of the Bush Administration, that envisioned avenues for enhanced cooperation, expand upon it and make it their own.
The process of privatization in Belarus led neighboring countries, in particular Poland and Lithuania, to recognize that their current approach to President Alexander Lukashenko was only pushing him and the country further into the arms of Moscow, perhaps resulting in Belarus becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Russia and Putin's crony oligarchs. Similarly, Minsk looked at the events of August 2008, when Russia invaded its small neighbor Georgia, and recognized the need to broaden its reach to more than just its difficult neighbor to the East. This is not to suggest Minsk will pursue a re-orientation to the West, but that it will reduce its dependence and diversify its options should Moscow's tactics become more intrusive.
Belarus will vote for president next month, and two things can be said about the election. First, the international community will not judge it as free and fair and second, President Lukashenko will be victorious. Recognizing this, the United States must look for opportunities following a flawed election to keep the door open to an improved relationship in close cooperation with the EU. We need a policy that looks for opportunities that advance our principles and interests with Minsk today, not after Lukashenko departs.
Success on all of these fronts will require more high level attention, enhanced cooperation with the EU and greater clarity. We are not looking for Moldova, Ukraine or Belarus to tilt away from Moscow, but we can support them as they find their way to a common European home. The integration of Europe offers the surest path to prosperity, both for the region and for the United States strategically, economically and ultimately for our security.
David A. Merkel is former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and served as Director for European and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council.