Newspaper article International New York Times

NATO's Second-Class Members

Newspaper article International New York Times

NATO's Second-Class Members

Article excerpt

The absence of peacekeepers in Poland and the Baltics is a concession to Russia.

During her recent visit to Latvia, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany assured the Baltic states of German and NATO solidarity with them in the face of a potential armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia. As President Obama did earlier here, Ms. Merkel assured her audience that NATO's obligations did not exist "only on paper." She is expected to repeat that promise on Saturday, when she is scheduled to appear in Kiev.

Any assurance that something is indeed binding merely reflects the existence of doubts. In this case, the uncertainty is based on the absence of NATO soldiers in the alliance's new member states, including Poland and the Baltics, which feel threatened as they observe Russia's destructive actions in the region.

That absence is a longstanding concession to Russia, which fears NATO encroachment -- one of the few remaining forms of control that Russia exercises over its former satellites. With the passage of time, this surrender of logic to geopolitics is becoming increasingly incomprehensible. Why should a country that is not party to NATO exercise any influence over it?

There is no need to pretend: Those members who have no NATO bases are simply a gray area of second-class membership. What has become clear is that not all NATO members are equal. First-class members -- Britain, Germany, Italy -- are those everyone knows would be immediately defended by NATO forces if attacked. Second-class members like Poland and the Baltics would most likely be ravaged for weeks or months before NATO forces made an appearance.

Of course, the first-class members would never admit as much. Instead, they play down the risk. Hubert Wetzel, a columnist for the newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, wrote that stationing troops in Poland and the Baltics to check Russia was "unnecessary" -- a rather careless characterization, given Russia's recent actions against Ukraine.

Mr. Wetzel added that such a move could also surprise and provoke Russia, the original reason for keeping NATO troops out of these countries. But they are already NATO members; why would troops signal anything other than the commitments that already exist on paper?

But Mr. Wetzel makes a weightier argument, too. NATO has already agreed with Russia that there would be no NATO bases in new member states, and agreements should be honored. Otherwise, the balance between partners will be disrupted.

Fair enough. But Russia has already upset that balance by breaking the fundamental assumption of peaceful coexistence between states: that borders and international law are supreme. It has created a dangerous precedent, and even a new type of war, a model to which any future aggressor can turn. The incentive to do so will be greater the more tolerance there is toward Russia's actions. …

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