Saturday, April 05, 2008

Bush reels from NATO setbacks

GEORGE W. Bush was reeling from a summit of setbacks yesterday as his carefully laid plans to invite Ukraine and Georgia into the bosom of the NATO alliance were scuppered by a Russian diplomatic coup.

The expected entry into NATO of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) was also blocked by a row over its name.

The twin disasters were not helped when the offers of more NATO troops for the mission in Afghanistan turned out to be more of a trickle than a flow of combat soldiers to take on the Taliban, although Gordon Brown said that there had been encouraging evidence of greater burden-sharing, particularly on civilian projects.

One positive development for Mr Bush was that the Czech Government finally agreed to house a radar system on its soil for the US’s missile defence system, and NATO expressed a desire to bring the whole of Europe under the umbrella of the network.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the head of the NATO alliance, insisted that the summit in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, had been a triumph of decision-making, and declared that even though Ukraine and Georgia were not going to be welcomed yet into the so-called membership action plan — the crucial step to joining the 26-strong organisation — they had been reassured that they would be members one day.

Mr Bush had demanded that Ukraine and Georgia should be offered the membership action plan immediately, but after warnings from President Putin that this would be dangerous for the security of Europe, Germany and France voted to oppose the idea, although they signed up to a compromise offer of eventual membership.

No one was prepared to guess when that may happen. NATO foreign ministers will discuss a possible starting date for the membership plan for the two countries at a meeting in December.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who dined with NATO leaders last night in Bucharest and is due to hold talks with Mr Bush at the Black Sea port of Sochi tomorrow, was being hailed in Moscow as a diplomatic mastermind for dashing Washington’s dream for Ukraine and Georgia.

Germany and France voiced concerns about opening NATO's doors to them partly because of Europe’s growing dependence on Russian energy supplies. Even Mr Brown failed to support the US plan.

President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine tried to hide his disappointment yesterday by saying: “I’m convinced that Ukraine will be in NATO.”

President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia gave warning that snubbing his nation would be a “bad sign” and would undermine his country’s reform process.

Experts in Moscow said the setback for Mr Bush on his last NATO summit was a clear victory for Mr Putin. “Putin has changed the tone of relations between Russia and the West,” Sergei Karaganov, a Russian political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said.

Mr Brown’s aides tried to play down the impact of the decision on Ukraine and Georgia, saying that they were content with the compromise. They said that in refusing to stand with Mr Bush over the issue Britain had denied Russia the opportunity to exploit a damaging split within the alliance. They also said that Germany had been forced to accept in principle Nato’s eastward expansion.

The hitch over Fyrom also spoilt what was supposed to be a celebration of three new Balkan countries joining the alliance — Albania, Croatia and Fyrom itself. All three had passed the tests for membership, but Greece vetoed Macedonia on the ground that it had the same name as its northern province.

After failing to reach a compromise, NATO leaders were forced to put the invitation to Fyrom on hold until the clashing names could be resolved. The Macedonian delegation walked out of the summit in protest.

On Afghanistan, Mr Brown’s and Kevin Rudd's call for countries to contribute more troops fell on mostly deaf ears. NATO officials admitted that despite the offer from President Nicolas Sarkozy of France of about 700 extra troops, the mission in Afghanistan would still be two battle groups short of what was needed.

Only a handful of nations pledged extra soldiers. New Zealand promised an extra 18. Portugal, Poland, Romania and Croatia have all signalled extra troops but only Georgia, which has said it might send up to 500, rivalled the French commitment.

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