(CNSNews.com) – While Georgia has been the focus of Russia’s military action in recent days, Moscow’s willingness to send in tanks and troops also is resonating loudly 900 miles northwest of Tbilisi, in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
The signal Russia is sending, analysts say, is that it will not tolerate any further NATO expansion into its backyard, and it will use the existence of Russian communities in former Soviet republics to retain its influence across the region.
Ukraine is one of Georgia’s closest allies among the former Soviet republics, and a fellow aspiring member of the Western alliance. It is also home to a large Russian-speaking minority.
Heritage Foundation scholar Ariel Cohen says one of Moscow’s goals in the war with Georgia has been to prevent that country from joining NATO.
Russia also intended to send “a strong message to Ukraine that its insistence on NATO membership may lead to war and/or its dismemberment,” he said.
Divided in the face of Russia’s strong objections, NATO leaders put membership plans for both Georgia and Ukraine on hold at a summit in Romania last spring.
NATO is due to review their applications in December, and after NATO ambassadors met in Brussels Tuesday, Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the question of Georgia’s NATO membership remained “very much alive.”
Georgia’s envoy to NATO, Revaz Beshidze, urged the alliance to speed up the membership application process as a result of the conflict in the Caucasus and the “new circumstances,” but recent events will further complicate efforts to achieve NATO consensus on the matter.
In Bucharest in April, France and especially Germany led the opposition to granting Georgia and Ukraine membership action plans (MAPs), the next step in a process toward becoming full-fledged members of the 26-nation alliance.
Apart from a reluctance to antagonize Russia, the key reasons cited for withholding MAPs were the existence of unresolved territorial and ethnic disputes and low levels of public backing for NATO membership.
While the Russia-Georgia war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia has both highlighted and worsened the former problem, Ukraine faces the issue of public opinion on joining the alliance. Russians make up almost one-quarter of Ukraine’s population, and polls show that most of them oppose NATO membership.
In the strategic Crimea region, Russians enjoy a large majority, and Ukraine has voiced concern at attempts by Russia to stir up separatist sentiment there.
Joint Ukraine-NATO naval exercises in the Black Sea off Crimea last month sparked protest demonstrations, with anti-NATO campaigners setting up camps along the coast and trying to disrupt port departures and amphibious landings.
The maneuvers, which involved in the U.S. and more than a dozen other countries, drew a formal complaint from Moscow, which viewed them as “anti-Russian.”
The Russian foreign ministry also sought to emphasize the local opposition, saying in a statement, “The mass protest actions against the exercise reflects the attitude of Ukraine’s public opinion towards the course of the current administration toward joining the Alliance.”
According to Taras Kuzio, visiting assistant professor of international affairs at George Washington University, the most important impact the crisis in the Caucasus will have will be on the NATO meeting in December to review the Georgian and Ukrainian membership bids.
“The two arguments against admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO – political instability in Ukraine and Georgia’s military conflict with Russia – have become stronger since they were raised by Germany and France at the April Bucharest NATO summit,” he wrote in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Tuesday.
“It is therefore unlikely that the review meeting will send a positive signal to Ukraine and Georgia about being granted NATO MAPs.”
The strongest support for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, apart from the United States, comes from formerly communist nations in eastern and central Europe, 10 of which have themselves joined NATO since 1999.
Five heads of state from that group – Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic republics – traveled to Tbilisi late Tuesday in what Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called a “show of solidarity” with the people of Georgia.
Addressing a mass rally of supporters in Tbilisi Tuesday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili warned about Russian ambitions elsewhere in its former sphere of influence.
“If Georgia falls, Ukraine will have problems,” he said. “If Georgia falls, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will have problems.” (Estonia and Latvia both have large Russian minorities.)
Saakashvili’s remarks echoed those he made late last week, when he noted that the Russians “have claims to Crimea in Ukraine, they have claims to some parts of the Baltic countries, they have claims to some parts of eastern Europe.”
During the fighting in Georgia, Ukraine protested when Russia sent warships from its Black Sea Fleet to the Georgian coast.
The fleet is based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, and Kiev warned on Sunday that it may prevent the Russian ships from returning to their base, saying their deployment from Ukrainian territory had the potential of drawing Ukraine into the conflict.
At a pro-Georgia protest rally by Ukrainian political parties and non-governmental groups outside the Russian Embassy in Kiev on Tuesday, a document delivered to the mission demanded that the Russian fleet be withdrawn from Crimea because of its participation in hostilities against Georgia.
The Black Sea Fleet’s presence in Sevastopol is a holdover from the Soviet era. Ukraine wants Russia to leave when its lease expires in 2017 while Russia wants to renew it – the cause for another simmering dispute between the two countries (Russia’s Black Sea coastline lies between Ukraine and Georgia. Assets along the coast include a naval base at Novorossiysk and the resort of Sochi, host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics.)
Some leading Russian politicians, including the head of the Communist Party and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a Putin ally, have been pushing for Russia not just to remain in Sevastopol but to reclaim the entire Crimea from Ukraine.
“Russian nationalist, Communist and pro-regime politicians are unanimous in using the Crimea and Sevastopol as a potential bargaining chip to halt Ukraine’s NATO membership,” noted Kuzio.
The Russia-Georgia conflict may also see the unraveling of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a Russia-led grouping of successor states of the Soviet Union.
Saakashvili announced at Tuesday’s rally that Georgia had decided to leave the CIS, to say “a final farewell to the Soviet Union.”
“We call on Ukraine and other CIS member states to leave this organization administered by Russia, which does not listen to anyone in doing so,” he added.
There was no immediate reported reaction from Ukraine, but any attempt by the country to withdraw from the CIS will draw strong reactions from the pro-Russia opposition in parliament.