Energy security and the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus featured prominently in discussions, as Western leaders prepared to open a two-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Latvia.
The NATO summit, which has attracted top leaders from all 26 member states, is running November 28-29 in the Latvian capital of Riga. The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will occupy much of the participants' attention. But other significant issues are on the agenda, including a discussion on re-defining what constitutes an attack against a treaty member.
One of the deans of the US foreign policy establishment, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, is in Riga advocating a change to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. In its current wording, Article 5 states that an "armed attack against one or more [members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all," and goes on to call for coordinated action among alliance members, including the potential use of force, "to restore and maintain international peace and security."
Lugar wants Article 5's language to be altered to cover energy security. Thus, in Lugar's view, an energy embargo against one member state could be considered an attack against the alliance. Analysts interpreted Lugar's proposed change as specifically designed to frustrate Russia's use of its energy reserves and pipeline capacity as instruments of geopolitical bullying. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"In the coming decades, the most likely source of armed conflict in the European theater and the surrounding regions will be energy scarcity and manipulation," Lugar said in Riga on November 27. "It would be irresponsible for NATO to decline involvement in energy security, when it is abundantly apparent that the jobs, health, and security of our modern economies and societies depend on the sufficiency and timely availability of diverse energy resources."
"We should recognize that there is little ultimate difference between a member being forced to submit to foreign coercion because of an energy cutoff, and a member facing a military blockade or other military demonstration on its borders," Lugar continued. "The use of energy as an overt weapon is not a theoretical threat of the future; it is happening now."
Talking to EurasiaNet, Lugar said his views on altering Article 5 enjoyed support among Washington policymakers. As for the receptiveness of the NATO leadership to the idea, Lugar responded: "That is why I am here [in Riga]. I am going to talk to them about it." NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer seems to have taken note of the suggestion. He said in a November 28 speech at a security conference that "in the age of globalization, virtually any societal problem can quickly escalate into a security challenge."
While the concept of expanding Article 5 to cover energy security appears to have early support, some officials point out that reformulating the NATO treaty is no easy task. However, the fact that more and more NATO officials and heads of state are emphasizing energy security suggests that the issue will not quickly fade from NATO's agenda.
During this early stage of discussion, Russian observers do not appear overly alarmed by the prospect of a significant expansion of NATO's security umbrella. A Russian analyst in Riga, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that "such suggestions are always raised in rhetoric, but there are practical difficulties in implementing them."
The energy security issue could take on added importance if two former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine are eventually admitted into NATO. Russia has sparred with both states in 2006. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In Georgia's case, Russia is imposing on Tbilisi what many regional observers see as a punitive energy export price increase. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In a speech prior to the opening of the NATO summit, US President George W. Bush said that Washington would continue to support Georgian and Ukrainian efforts to transform their respective military establishments to make them NATO-ready. "Here in Riga," Bush stated, "the allies will make clear that the door to NATO membership remains open."
Lugar on November 27 met with Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze and Latvian Defense Minister Atis Slakteris to discuss ways to facilitate Georgia's NATO membership drive. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. During a post-meeting press conference, Burjanadze characterized her country's NATO ambition as a manifestation of popular desire. "NATO is not only a security provider. It is an organization that helps other countries to strengthen democracy. It is important for Georgia to be a member of an alliance that is based on democratic principles," she stated.
Referring to Georgia's ongoing political and economic disputes with Russia, Burjanadze indicated that Tbilisi remained open to dialogue. But the speaker warned: "Georgia has its own red lines that we can never compromise. These are our territorial integrity, democratic development, and international orientation of our country."
Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He reported this piece in Riga.