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07.08.2006. The Geopolitically Handicapped

Reading recent speeches by some U.S. and NATO people, one might wonder how some Western officials who look so civilized on the surface can be deep down as distracted from reality and, in fact, as geopolitically irrational as only the most radical Islamists have appeared to be.

This world of ours is a quickly changing place, with changes, sometimes unpredictable and uncontrollable, spinning past those who gave grown accustomed to predictability and certainty. Which is the price to pay for grave mistakes made by some global decision-makers in the past decade.

First of all, Pakistan, India, and North Korea have attained a nuclear military capability under their watch. Now, for the want of any credible political or moral arguments against further nuclear proliferation – a threadbare combination of military sticks and economic carrots not having much effect any longer, – they are actually in the process of formalizing their newly acquired nuclear status.

Then, the grim reality of the erroneous Iraq war, destroying one of the few secular, if unsavory, regimes in the Middle East, has shattered the best hopes for a civilization-to-civilization dialog to help fill the security vacuum there and raised a wave of resentment even among Saddam critics, dividing the West and depriving the United States of its moral high ground. In a related case, the military success in Afghanistan where the Taliban gave way to something that has yet, and is highly unlikely, to evolve into a self-sustained government clearly does not help.

Worse, the Iraqi quagmire and the Iranian standoff slowly but surely erode the anti-terrorist and anti-radical coalition. As anti-Americanism is spilling over from the Middle East to Latin America, where governments are openly scheming against the U.S., some Western politicians’ toughening up relations with Russia and China with tacit – and lately increasingly blunt – threats and trying to revamp Atlantic solidarity with a weakened Europe look set to achieve a highly questionable objective: either to frighten Moscow out of the top league of global actors or to instigate radical response to wind up international tension and try to divert the public eye from their own blunders.

The issue that deserves attention here is widespread talk of further NATO enlargement.

Some say the Alliance will reach as far as Australia, South Korea, Japan, and New Zealand. (The prospects for luring them in being extremely fragile, this ironically resembles the Pacific-Atlantic, Southeast Asian, Central, and other long-perished “Treaty Organizations.”)

Others exploit a far-fetched proposal to deploy missile defenses in Poland near Russia’s borders – ostensibly to protect Poland from terrorist missiles that cannot get into the Polish airspace anyway – and a NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s quasi-official claim of an upcoming expansion into countries grossly underperforming on all membership criteria – Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania.

However, the worst part has been the renewed Kiev-D.C. speculation about Ukraine’s Atlantic fast track. There are even plans to expand into Ukraine without a national referendum, which will either drive the last nail into the very concept of further enlargement – unless the vote is rigged – or result in a deeper social divide in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian pro-enlargement faction is clearly composed of people who have neither confidence nor vision of Ukrainian statehood, do not want to compete with a robust Russia, would like to control their country by putting on the ball and chain of military and political alliance with Washington.

Some – not all – Western motives are also clear enough.

They may include a drive to secure the Western trajectory of an unstable and on-the-fence Ukraine – securing the votes of East European immigrants in a U.S. election year could also come handy – and to create yet another pro-American foothold in Europe.

As to the latter, there is a desperate need for a new foothold because the existing one in Warsaw does not actually work. While traditionalists still dream of regaining Polish domination of Ukraine, lost centuries ago, their own country is facing increasing political isolation in the Greater Europe.

There is also one issue that might bring major repercussions and that few outsiders are even aware of.

To begin with, Russia and Ukraine have little border to speak of. It exists only on paper and in the minds and pockets of shrewd customs officers. First trenches have reportedly appeared on the borderline but they will seem child’s play if the frontier is formalized. A NATO-driven Ukraine will naturally push for a real “military-style” borderline, with barbed wire and everything, and that is where real problems will begin. Any hill will become strategic; any ravine will acquire some historic meaning. Transborder employment and trade, which currently involves millions of people on both sides, will stop, millions of families will be divided; scores of conflicts will inevitably raise the so far sleeping ghost of a divided-nation syndrome. Another Yugoslavia? Very likely. 

Some in the pro-NATO faction in Ukraine understand this well enough. Most, though, seem just to be too light-minded about the lessons of recent history. What they fail to understand is that Russia is not Serbia. Even though at a cost of engaging in anti-Western alliances with the possible end of its current status-quo power posture and hopefully without resorting to confrontation (although it is abundantly clear that harsh and sometimes excessive response might be necessary), Russia will withstand pressure. Ukraine will suffer times more damage, losing a loyal partner that has not always been sweet enough but has never really played against Kiev.

This, however, is not the main point. A new artificial “arc of instability” along the Russian-Ukrainian frontier will revive a new “comedy” version of old-fashioned bloc rivalry, scrapping the very idea of a union addressing new challenges. This new comedy will end in a lose-lose for many and win-win for the few longing for destabilization and weapons of mass destruction – terrorists and radicals the community of civilized and developed nations so vocally claims to be fighting against.

If part of that community makes the misguided step of granting a NATO membership to Ukraine, at least one comfort will be that we will finally find out the ones who cannot be referred to as genuinely civilized and developed. The only hope is that they reveal, if anything, enough common sense and self-preservation to save what has come to be known as the European civilization.

// RIA Novosti