U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Walter “Rick” Landgraf is a strategic and international engagements chief at the Pentagon and a fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank.
He has served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as serving in NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, in the United Kingdom, and in Georgia.
Ahead of the NATO Vilnius summit on July 11-12, RFE/RL’s Georgian Service asked Landgraf about Ukraine’s and Georgia’s decoupled paths since Bucharest in 2008, the need for a “real conversation” about NATO’s “all for one” article, and whether simply wanting to be in NATO makes it a good idea for the alliance.
The comments and opinions expressed in this interview are Landgraf’s personal views and are not intended to reflect the positions of the U.S. Army or Defense Department.
RFE/RL: What can be expected, realistically, of the Vilnius summit, for Ukraine and Georgia? Or has this tandem been decoupled for good?
Walter “Rick” Landgraf: Over the years, Ukraine and Georgia, in a way, have shared the same fate. In some ways their situations are very similar. Russia has, to some extent, invaded both countries to prevent their likely accession to the alliance. So these are countries that have similar geopolitical circumstances whereby the central governments don’t control all of the territory within the internationally recognized border. And these are also countries where ostensibly their governments want to integrate with the West [and] join Western institutions, namely EU and NATO.
Now, in practice, I know in both cases there has been some democratic backsliding, particularly with Georgia over the past couple of years. And, for the Georgia case, that doesn’t serve Georgia well, if it intends to join NATO or the EU. I think that the Ukraine case is different, obviously, because of the scale of the war and the devastating effects of the war. So I think the West can more easily get behind Ukraine — rightly so. But I think ultimately both their fates are tied together because of Bucharest and because they both want to join the West, integrate with the West.
RFE/RL: What can they expect of this summit, realistically?
Landgraf: I think realistically what you can expect is that NATO will reaffirm the Bucharest decision and will say that both countries have all the practical tools to prepare themselves for eventual membership. And NATO will likely also say that the Membership Action Plan (MAP) is the next step in the process for both countries.
Live Briefing: Russia’s Invasion Of Ukraine
RFE/RL’s Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia’s full-scale invasion, Kyiv’s counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL’s coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.
Now, in reality, both countries already have everything that a Membership Action Plan can bring. And from a military standpoint, I think the Ukrainian military over the past year and a half since the [full-scale] invasion began, has showed an incredible capability to modernize, to adapt, and to improve and enhance its interoperability with NATO forces. It’s had to do this because the fate of the country relies on it.
On the Georgia side, I think the pace and the intensity of Georgia’s modernization of its military has slowed quite a bit. In some ways, it’s been maybe hollowed out a bit. So I think the pace is a little bit different there.
I expect NATO to commit itself to Bucharest at the summit. But as far as practical, concrete action on the ground, I don’t expect much more than already what’s happening outside of the NATO construct with regards to Ukraine.
RFE/RL: I see. So, basically, that would be a Bucharest 2.0?
Landgraf: Well, I don’t know if we can call it 2.0 at this point; it might be like more like 15.0. Because over the past 15 years, every single summit that NATO has had, NATO has reaffirmed the commitment to Bucharest. Now, especially for Georgia, because the Georgian government has never officially renounced its intent to join NATO…unlike Ukraine, when the [ex-President Viktor] Yanukovych government declared military neutrality for a period of about 3 1/2 to four years. And you go back into the summit declarations — once that happened, once the Yanukovych government did that, there was no mention of Bucharest in a context of Ukraine for several years. It shows that what really kind of drives this process of enlargement is, there needs to a concerted interest from the countries that want to join the alliance.
RFE/RL: Let’s agree on “Bucharest 1.5.” And I’m sure it’s convenient for NATO, but the expert consensus seems to be growing that Bucharest 1.0 was a mistake. So how much sense does it make strategically to continue on this road?
Landgraf: It makes sense from a point of view of NATO, of the spirit and the drive behind Article 10 of the NATO Charter, which is the open-door policy, which states that any European democracy that meets NATO standards, both politically and military, which can contribute to the overall security of the Euro-Atlantic region, can join the alliance. So in many ways, Bucharest is not just a signal to Georgia and Ukraine; it’s also a signal to other countries which may want to one day join the alliance. So strategically, for NATO’s sake, reiterating Bucharest also shows potential members and potential challengers and opposers that NATO is serious about keeping its commitments and it’s serious about following through on those at some point in the future.
I agree with you, I think the consensus now — many observers will say that Bucharest 1.0 was a mistake. It was a mistake, because it put tremendous pressure on Georgia and Ukraine and exposed them to Russian coercion. We’ve seen this play out. This was the first time that NATO explicitly said that two countries would join the alliance but did not give those two countries a pathway to do so. At the time, it was a compromise that that the NATO allies made to come up with this Bucharest statement, saying that “We agree in principle that they should be become members, however, what we disagree on is when this will happen.” And this awareness is directly linked to the Membership Action Plan.
RFE/RL: It might make sense for NATO, but doesn’t it also create a waiting limbo, where these countries are kept in front of the open door ad infinitum? And what kind of message does it send to other countries who might want to join?
Landgraf: I think there are two ways to look at the message of Finland’s accession. One, as NATO says, each country will be judged on its own merits. The geopolitical circumstances surrounding Finland’s accession are different than Georgia’s or than Ukraine’s. I think the biggest thing that stands out in the enlargements of both organizations is that Finland is already an EU member and has been an EU member for a very long time. So nobody seriously questions Finland’s bona fides for becoming firmly part of the Euro-Atlantic alliance, because it’s already a member of the EU.
If you’re from Ukraine and Georgia, you say, “Hey, wait a minute: Finland has just joined without a MAP and has sort of bumped up into the front of the queue, in front of us.”
Finland is the first country since the end of the Cold War that has joined the EU first and then NATO. Up until now, it had been the other way around — countries joined NATO and then the EU — because the conventional understanding is that the barrier to joining NATO is much lower than it is to joining the EU. And NATO in practice has been sort of a stepping stone to EU membership. Probably the best example of this has been the Baltic states.
But I think ultimately for these countries that are transitioning from communism to democratic systems, what they worry about the most is security. And this is this is what leads countries like the Baltic states, who are exposed and have this history with Russia for many years and the Soviet Union, to seek security guarantees first — to provide an element of cover, so their countries can fully democratize, fully transition into market-based economies to provide that cover, that security umbrella, so those transitions can take place. I think on the one hand, Finland is a case that has been judged on its own merits. And NATO has been clear in saying that the cases should be judged by their merits for many years.
Now, on the other hand, you’re right, Georgia and Ukraine had been in this waiting room for many years without a MAP, and NATO has told both countries that MAP is the next step. And then if you’re from Ukraine and Georgia, you say, “Hey, wait a minute: Finland has just joined without a MAP and has sort of bumped up into the front of the queue, in front of us.”
RFE/RL: Not only that. Also, in parallel, NATO has been telling both Kyiv and Georgia that they have every practical means available to be members. “If we do have every practical tool, why do we need a MAP? [We could join] just like Finland.”
Landgraf: That’s the paradox. NATO has for many years avoided and sort of kicked the can down the road with the MAP decision by giving both Georgia and Ukraine various other things — the substantial NATO-Georgia package for Georgia; the counterpart for Ukraine is a comprehensive assistance package; also things like labeling each country an “enhanced opportunities partner.” These are all what I call consolation prizes to try to reinforce Georgia’s and Ukraine’s integration and to provide a sense of forward momentum. Because the fact is, the allies can still not agree on whether or not the two countries should receive MAPs.
RFE/RL: We saw a statement that amounted to NATO asking Ukraine for more reforms at Vilnius before discussion on any clear road map. Is that an excuse? And if it is, will it fly for Ukrainians?
Landgraf: I think what it does is it provides NATO a convenient justification for delaying the process. For Ukraine’s sake, for its part, of course, it is very difficult to enact and implement and internalize these sorts of reforms while there is an active war happening. [In] NATO membership, the standards have always been two-pronged; there’s the military standards and there’s the political standards. And these practices and these standards that countries are supposed to internalize and implement in their domestic processes, these can be presented as objective standards….
RFE/RL: Or as double standards?
Landgraf: Ultimately, there’s a measure of subjectivity to the standards. Because, in some cases, they can say, “This country meets the standards [and] that country doesn’t.” But in practice, the geopolitical circumstances of the aspirant state matter, they matter greatly. There are no cases like the Georgia and Ukraine cases that [better] demonstrate that….
RFE/RL: Who has the moral high ground here?
Landgraf: I think this goes back to the question about Bucharest and how it was a mistake. If you are a member of a club and you say to someone who wants to join the club that “You will become a member of this club if you do X, Y, and Z,” and then circumstances change — well, on the one hand, Georgia and Ukraine say: “Hey, we’ve done X, Y, and Z. Where’s our membership card?” And then on the other hand, NATO can say, “Well, the situation has changed.” Which it has.
RFE/RL: Partly because of what NATO did. Might one argue it changed due to NATO’s passive stance on the issue?
Landgraf: Yeah, well, yeah. I mean, I agree. I think the crux of the matter is that we have this structure, this framework, where it’s about membership or no membership. And I don’t know if there’s force behind this, but the real conversation that needs to happen behind closed doors is: If these countries want to join NATO, then what happens with regards to Article 5, and what territory does Article 5 apply to? This is the single most important issue. Because ultimately the backbone of NATO is Article 5, and without Article 5 and maintaining the integrity of Article 5 that all allies will follow through on this mutual-defense pledge, there is no alliance.
RFE/RL: And there is no rush in Brussels to face up to that question.
RFE/RL: We also mentioned the fact that Georgia’s NATO ambitions are weakened by its government’s perceived or real pro-Russian course…and not being as fervent as the previous government and half-steps. Far be it from me to defend them. But let me ask this: Is this the sole detriment for Georgia on its path to NATO? If that’s the case, why doesn’t Brussels say, “You can join, but not under this government”?
Landgraf: I think it’s a contributing factor. I don’t think it’s the only factor. Let’s say that the government of Georgia was extremely — whether perceived or real — pro-Western, very, very assertive on that. That still does not address the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So long as there are territorial divisions, I think that is the overriding factor.
Now, certainly the current position of the Georgian government doesn’t help Georgia’s case one bit. But let’s take that out of the equation, the geopolitical orientation of the current government. You still have the breakaway territories and how Georgia could join NATO as a full member with or without those territories. That is the single most important issue in the Georgia case.
RFE/RL: That also applies to Ukraine, with the war going on, and Kyiv not having full control of its internationally recognized borders. And we approach a paradox there, don’t we, because NATO is not willing to get those two countries accepted unless the territorial-dispute issue is resolved? And on the other hand, these two countries have zero willingness whatsoever to renounce those territories and join NATO without them.
Landgraf: Right. What Georgian government would survive after saying, “We renounce Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so now let’s join NATO.” I don’t think that Georgian government, no matter who controls it, would survive the following day.
RFE/RL: And both Tbilisi and Kyiv want to join NATO, at least partly, so that they can see the territorial borders, sometime in the future, restored and at peace?
Landgraf: Yes. And I think Georgians use the precedent of West Germany’s accession to NATO. I think that, again, the political circumstances are much different. We are no longer in a bipolar system, where there are two superpowers and the superpowers are vying for influence over countries that are in the middle. We are in a more chaotic system, a more multipolar system now. And I think strictly from a NATO security perspective and a military perspective, just because Georgia and Ukraine want to join NATO does not necessarily mean it’s a good idea…. That is the elephant in the room.
RFE/RL: There is another debate about being a security asset versus being a security liability. When it comes to Ukraine and Georgia, where do those two countries stand?
Landgraf: I think, on the one hand, there’s this argument about defensibility. This is the same argument that characterizes the debate about the Baltic states’ accession — that these countries were indefensible from Russian invasion. I think when the Baltic states joined in 2004, the relationship between the West and Russia was much different; It wasn’t nearly as standoffish as it is now. At that point, there was still this aspiration that the West could successfully integrate Russia in one way or another, or at least try to bring Russia into the fold.
The Tavberidze Interviews
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL’s Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war’s course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.
Now, I think by the time of 2007 and 2008, things had changed quite a bit, and I think there is a geopolitical crisis that has been created with the Russian invasion of [Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia territories in] 2008. And there was a brief sort of respite during the so-called “reset,” and then that reset did not fix any sort of the structural issues in the system where, on the one side, NATO is the dominant player in the European security architecture and wants to set the rules, and Russia does not want to accept this sort of junior-partner status in Europe. And it has struck out against the system, and we saw this play out in 2014, and we saw it play out a year and a half ago in the full-scale invasion.
So this defensibility argument applies to Georgia and Ukraine, because of their physical situations and them sharing these long borders with Russia. I mean, you look at the history of enlargement and you look at Montenegro’s accession [in 2017], North Macedonia’s accession [in 2020]; it’s much easier because of where these countries are — they don’t share borders with Russia. And it shows you that geography matters in these cases.
RFE/RL: But then again, Finland also shares a rather sizable border with Russia, and it was accepted.
Landgraf: Right. And I think that speaks to the paradox that the Georgians and Ukrainians can justifiably claim.
RFE/RL: On Ukraine, this security-asset-versus-liability debate, it kind of seems to be shifting in Ukraine’s favor, don’t you think? Because a lot of experts have been claiming that Ukraine would a real asset for NATO security, if it joins, not so much when it comes to Georgia.
Landgraf: I think the asset-versus-liability argument is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, from a military-capability standpoint, the Ukrainian military has done a tremendous job in defending its country. I know that the counteroffensive is still playing out, and we’ll see how it does play out. But the Ukrainian armed forces has shown an ability to adapt and overcome, and a resiliency — they’ve truly been battle-tested. And from a military standpoint, yes, Ukraine’s military, as it stands right now, would be an asset to NATO forces, to NATO missions and operations across the globe — a variety of types of missions from peacekeeping to combat [and] everything in between.
Georgia’s military is in a different situation. For many years, Georgia, had sent its best forces to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those provided opportunities to enhance capability and to participate in training and exercises, and to demonstrate interoperability in real-life scenarios. Very much, I think the attention has shifted.
RFE/RL: I was actually meaning to ask about that. You were posted both in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for many, many years for Georgia, part of the argument about NATO was that Georgia has paid its admittance price with blood, both in Georgia in 2008 and then in Afghanistan. Has this argument become obsolete?
Landgraf: I think there is still purchase in that argument. I think Georgians are justified in making that argument. Because for the size of the Georgia military and the size of Georgia and the capabilities that it does have, it does have a very small military. And for many years, it sent its best forces to both conflicts. I think that is worth something and the price that Georgia has paid, it’s very important and it should not be forgotten. Now, on the other hand, as time moves on, memories fade; and the Afghan war is now over, NATO is not directly engaged in a conflict such as that. So that has removed an opportunity for Georgia to justify and to warrant its being included in the alliance.
RFE/RL: Do you fear there might be a sort of NATO fatigue in both Ukrainian and Georgian populations, and what might it cost, geopolitically, for the West?
Landgraf: I think there’s been this argument about NATO fatigue, both within the domestic population of Georgia and Ukraine, but also, within the alliance. I think it’s important for both sides to recommit — rhetorically and then also through concrete action — to the relationship. I think that’s the best way that both sides can stand up to Russia and to show Russia that no third country, as NATO says, has a say over who joins the alliance and who doesn’t.
RFE/RL: A geopolitical “it takes two to tango,” right?
RFE/RL: But it seems that the two parties or the three parties, in this case, want to dance to different music? The DJ is a bit lost?
Landgraf: Yeah, yeah. Just last week, in Georgia, the sense I got — and I think this had been many years in the making — is that this idea of EU integration seems much more of an attractive thing than NATO integration. I wonder if the Georgian population sees the benefits of EU integration more so than they would NATO integration. Much more the practical things, like visa-free travel and other sort of practical benefits. But on the other hand, NATO brings a security guarantee that the EU at least has on paper but has never been activated or implemented.