NATO does not want to escalate the crisis with Russia, which is why neither Ukraine nor Georgia can expect to join the alliance any time soon. Georgia can still hold out some hope for closer talks in September.
US President Barack Obama said it clearly enough during last week's trip to Brussels. He does not see Ukraine or Georgia becoming part of NATO at the moment. Nevertheless, the alliance's foreign ministers met with their Georgian counterpart Maja Panjikidze in Brussels in order to continue talks about the possible eventual accession of the former Soviet republic.
As in many summits and meetings before, NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Georgia would become a NATO member, some day.
"We remain firm in our support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity in its internationally-recognized borders," he said. "We also support Georgia's transatlantic aims."
But since Russia opposes both Georgia and Ukraine's potential membership in the alliance, the NATO leadership remains hesitant. Though, officially, Rasmussen often emphasizes that no country, including Russia, can decide what alliance a country chooses to join.
Staying on the ball
NATO diplomats have said privately that as long as Russia is still occupying two breakaway provinces inside Georgia, the military alliance will hardly want to make that fight its own by letting the Caucasian nation join the transatlantic group.
Following a brief war in the summer of 2008, Russia took de facto control of the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - both of which have been calling for independence or membership of the Russian federation since the start of the 1990s.
In April 2008, just a few months before the war, NATO had decided at a summit in Bucharest to admit both Georgia and Ukraine, only to watch as Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected the decision outright. Unofficially, some European NATO members took heed of Russia's objections, and the alliance declined to make either a timetable or concrete preparations for Georgia and Ukraine's membership.
Now, six years later, Georgia's new government still wants a full seat in NATO. "This desire is supported by the overwhelming majority of the Georgian population as well as Georgia's major political parties," said new Prime Minister Irakli Garibashivili on his last visit to NATO headquarters in February. "The Georgian government will undertake every effort to continue the path of reforms that will bring us closer to NATO," he promised.
Rasmussen added that NATO did recognize the internal progress being made in the democratization of Georgian society, and he pointed out that the country was one of the most important troop suppliers to the Afghanistan mission. Georgia also intends to send soldiers to Afghanistan after the NATO troop withdrawal in 2014.
But the general-secretary also refused to say whether the next NATO summit, to take place in September in Wales, will discuss Georgia's accession - or indeed any new members.
Rasmussen's tenure is set to end after the summit. In June, NATO diplomats have said off the record, the alliance will re-assess membership applications, which means that Georgia could potentially be offered a preliminary membership plan at September's summit. But the present Crimea crisis will have to be dealt with first. "This isn't really the time to make new trouble," one diplomat said in Brussels. At the same time, NATO did not want to be blackmailed by the Kremlin.
The Ukrainian foreign minister, for his part, did not express a desire for a quick accession to NATO, even though the alliance intends to strengthen both political and non-military cooperation with Ukraine. There has even been talk of joint military exercises.
The Kremlin has now reacted to NATO's decision to freeze contact with Russia following its occupation of the Crimean peninsula. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, himself once an ambassador to NATO, scoffed at the alliance, calling the decision an April Fools joke, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his annoyance at the measure - which was threatened three weeks ago - in a phone call with his US counterpart John Kerry. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, on the other hand, expressed his hope that economic ties with the West would remain stable despite the crisis.
But even on the second day of the foreign ministers' summit in Brussels, NATO said it saw no sign that Russian troops were withdrawing from the border areas with Ukraine. US General Philip Breedlove, supreme commander of NATO in Europe, warned that the Russian troop deployment was big enough to reach any part of Ukraine within a few days. "Over the past several decades it was unthinkable that the geography of European nations would be changed by force," Breedlove told the "Wall Street Journal." "Yet that's exactly what we've seen."
Former NATO General Secretary Lord George Robertson, on the other hand, warned that the alliance should not put everything else on the backburner in order to deal with the Russian crisis and return to a Cold War strategy of territorial defense. The new NATO has many other global tasks, such as Afghanistan, to deal with, he said.
Speaking to the Internet video magazine NATO Review on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the alliance on Friday (04.04.2014), Robertson said that at the end of the day, Russia would have to be included one way or another.
"There will never be security in Europe without an organization that says: We represent free values. And that has to include Russia," Robertson said. "Either under the current leadership or under another leadership. Putin's first government, when he was president for the first time, believed in precisely this goal."