Vol. 2, No. 6 (March 15, 2009)

NATO’s possible expansion to the East: Some unexpected implications for Azerbaijan

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and Moscow’s destabilization campaign in Ukraine since that time have prompted many in NATO capitals to ask ever more insistently whether either country let alone both should be invited to join the Western alliance anytime soon.  And while such questions appear to have put on hold the chance that either will be taken in soon, they have also opened the broader debate about the expansion of the alliance in ways that are certain to have some profound implications for Azerbaijan.

On the one hand, any pause in the expansion of the alliance, especially after the efforts Washington made toward that end earlier, will affect not only those countries who have actively sought membership but may now have to wait or perhaps not get it at all and also for their neighbors who will have to recalibrate their security calculations in either case.

And on the other hand, this pause is leading at least some participants in these discussions to recognize that Ukraine and Georgia are not a natural pair but rather two countries whose radically different geopolitical and security situations suggest that they should be treated separately, however much the two have sought to boost themselves through references to their common “color” revolutions.  Some argue that Ukraine should get in sooner than Georgia; a few argue the reverse.

These discussions, of course, not only focus on the candidate countries but also on their neighbors, with many in the alliance convinced that if NATO does not extend membership immediately, it will need to take other steps for both the current candidates and their neighbors.  And these conversations in turn are even leading a few to consider that there is a better pairing of countries than Ukraine and Georgia and that is Georgia and Azerbaijan.  While there is no indication NATO is ready to offer membership to this pair anytime soon or a certainty that Baku would accept if it were, such discussions likely will have an impact on other sets of relations and thus help to define the environment within which Azerbaijan will now be operating.

There are five possible permutations to NATO’s expansion eastward – Ukraine and Georgia are invited to join together and soon, neither is invited in, Ukraine gets in but Georgia does not, Georgia gets in but Ukraine does not, and Georgia and Azerbaijan eventually get in together, probably but not necessarily after Ukraine.  Each of these has implications, some obvious and others not so obvious, for Baku and its foreign policy.

Option One: Ukraine and Georgia Become NATO Members.  If the Atlantic alliance moves to take in both Ukraine and Georgia, three things are almost certain: First, Russia will move quickly to try to prevent any other former Soviet republics from getting in, using all the means at its disposal.  Second, the inclusion of both and the actions of Moscow will lead other countries in the region to seek membership.  And third, the alliance itself will expand its programs for the countries neighboring both Ukraine and Georgia, among them being in the latter case Azerbaijan.

A year ago, Kyiv and Tbilisi appeared on the brink of becoming members. Now, that is far less likely given Russian actions and the onset of the economic crisis which is causing many member states to rethink what they are willing and able to do.  But if NATO did include the two at once, Azerbaijan almost certainly would find itself both under increased Russian pressure both overt and covert not to seek membership, offered additional support by NATO and its member states to promote its security in the changed neighborhood, and likely under increasing domestic pressure to seek membership lest it fall again under Russian domination.

That combination of circumstances again, almost certainly, would lead to some radical discontinuities in Azerbaijan’s relations with other countries, both inside the alliance and outside, changes that would put to the test President Ilham Aliyev’s hitherto successful prosecution of a balanced foreign policy.

Option Two: Neither Ukraine Nor Georgia Become NATO Members.  If as now seems more likely NATO decides not to offer membership to either Ukraine or Georgia anytime soon, the consequences could prove equally dramatic and unsettling across the region.  On the one hand, both Kyiv and Tbilisi would certainly feel that they had been misled; their neighbors would assume that the alliance’s expansion was at an end, at least for a long time to come, and Moscow would seek to exploit this situation by presenting itself as the obvious alternative to the West, an effort that might bear fruit.

On the other hand, many in the alliance would feel that they would have to do more short of membership to support Ukraine and Georgia and more for the neighbors of the two, albeit in ways that would not encourage the others to think that they could look forward to membership in the near term.  That might reassure some but it would simultaneously reduce the pressure in all these countries to reform their military and political systems while perhaps provoking Moscow, many of whose officials would see such arrangements as a kind of covert expansion whatever Brussels and Washington might say.

In this situation, Azerbaijan would likely have to “reset” its policies, tilting more toward Moscow relative to the West diplomatically and considering how best to proceed with its internal military modernization program, one that has been moving the Azerbaijani military away from Soviet-style systems toward interoperable NATO ones.  Again, such a situation could lead to serious discontinuities, with Baku forced to react quickly to changes in the actions of all outside actors.

Option Three: Ukraine Gets In but Georgia Does Not.  Moscow’s use of force in Georgia has led some analysts and policy makers within NATO governments to consider that perhaps the alliance should take in Ukraine but not Georgia.  While the political situation in Kyiv is far from stable and clear, it is certainly more stable and clear than the one in Tbilisi.  And by splitting the difference, both those committed to expansion and those opposed could claim a certain victory, confident in the one case that the alliance’s proclaimed open door has not been slammed shut and in the other that NATO has not risked “a bridge too far.”

In some ways, this option would pose the most serious challenge to Azerbaijan and its foreign policy.  It would suggest whatever anyone said that the West has accepted a Russian droit de regard in the Caucasus, something that would give Russia a freer hand there.  It would also indicate that no south Caucasus state is likely to get into Western institutions anytime soon and thus must make the best deal it can with Moscow.  And it would mean that other, non-security arrangements including the transit to the West of Caspian Basin oil and gas would have to be revisited and possibly sacrificed.

Option Four: Georgia Gets In but Ukraine Does Not.  When Russia invaded Georgia, some in the West suggested that NATO should immediately offer membership to Georgia in order to stay Moscow’s hand.  That was never a real possibility, given differences within the alliance, and this option is even less likely now.  Georgia has not stabilized, Russia has not backed down, and both Europe and the United States are seeking to deal with Moscow on a status quo ante basis that would be impossible were NATO to extend membership to Georgia alone.  Indeed, Moscow would see this as a provocation of the purest kind.

But for analytic completeness, it is worth considering for the following reason: Suggestions that the alliance should proceed in this way have already had two consequences.  On the one hand, they have pointed to a reality all too often forgotten: defense alliances are for defense.  Those who are at risk are thus those who need them most.  And on the other, by separating Georgia and Ukraine, those who made this argument – and their numbers were never large – have opened the door to the possibility that NATO needs to reconsider its current thinking about just what it is and explore other options and other possible members.
As the alliance does so, it almost certainly will devote more attention to Azerbaijan, a country which resembles Georgia in terms of its location, the geopolitical threats it faces as a result, and its role in the east-west flow of oil and gas and the west-east flow of geopolitical influence.  That means that many in the alliance will want to do more for Azerbaijan even if NATO never extends membership to Tbilisi let alone Baku, and that in turn suggests that such discussions are certain to prompt Moscow to seek to forestall such a development. 

Option Five: Georgia and Azerbaijan Become Members.  If the Georgia alone option seems remote, the notion that Georgia and Azerbaijan, however much in common they may have, might join NATO together with or without Ukraine seems impossibly so.  Azerbaijan has not sought membership, although it is an active participant in many NATO and EU programs, and it is far from clear whether Baku would accept inclusion were it to be offered.  But the pause in expansion makes this option less unthinkable at some point in the future than it was only six months or a year ago. 

Some experts and officials in the region are now talking about it, and such conversations, even if they seem unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, have their own dynamic, one that will force some decisions on those now reluctant to make them and prompt others, opposed to those decisions to act in anticipation of them.  Both these calculations will affect Baku and its foreign policy, complicating the life of its leaders and diplomats who will face new challenges on all sides.  And that development in turn means that Azerbaijan must begin to think about the implications expected and even more unexpected of NATO expansion whether in fact the alliance grows eastward or not.