What once seemed wildly improbable is now taken for granted. NATO continues to move east into parts of the former Soviet Union. The three Baltic states, Slovakia and Slovenia in central Europe, and Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea, appear likely to join the alliance at its November summit in Prague. Farther east still, Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus are seeking admission. But that may finally meet stiff resistance from Moscow as a serious challenge to Russia's national interest.
In the words of a veteran analyst: "The nations of the Caucasus have a daunting mixture of Asiatic despotism and Soviet despotism."
That is the opinion of Vladimir Socor, who also said two of those countries, Georgia and Azerbaijan, should become members of NATO by 2005. He concedes nevertheless there is much work to be done in terms of improving their governments and bringing their military forces up to NATO standards.
Some European NATO members have serious doubts this can be accomplished, but Mr. Socor thinks it must be, considering the region's vast oil and gas reserves. "NATO is essential for providing an overall security framework, both in military and in political terms, in order to anchor these countries safely into the western security system. Absent such an anchor, those countries would be permanently exposed to the historic east-west contest in which Russia today believes it has geopolitical interests which are at variance with those of the west," he said.
Mr. Socor said Russia is too weak militarily to stand up to the west and will offer more talk than action. He noted Russian President Putin has offered little objection to the U.S. military mission sent to train Georgian forces.
Don't count on a passive Russia, responds Sergei Konoplyov, director of the Black Sea Security program at Harvard University. It is one thing for Russia to go along with the Caucasus participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, since Russia now has a similar association with NATO.
Nevertheless, said Mr. Konoplyov, "What might bother Russia is that Azerbaijan could play a more active role, trying to use the relationship with NATO against Russia and Iran. And Georgia might do it, too. So Russia will lose more influence in that region. Don't forget that Azerbaijan is a very rich part of the world," he said.
Russia may not have much of a choice, said Vladimir Socor. Westernization has gone too far to be turned back. "The western orientation does command a consensus in both Georgia and Azerbaijan, both at the level of the political elites and at the level of the general populace. These societies have made their choice. These societies have cast their lot with the west. They know what the source of prosperity is for them in the future. They see where the source of power in the world is," Mr. Socor said.
But Russia still has military bases in Georgia and strong influence in adjacent Armenia, which is not going to join NATO and has fought Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Just as the west strengthens Georgia and Azerbaijan, said Mr. Konoplyov, Russia supplies Armenia.
Mr. Konoplyov adds the internal situation in Georgia and Azerbaijan is too uncertain to predict western victory. Georgian President Shevardnadze and Azerbaijani President Aliyev are both in their late 70's with waning popular support. A younger, competent succession is possible but not assured.
In the ensuing turmoil, said Mr. Konoplyov, anything can happen. "I do not exclude a possibility that after both presidents go, those countries might be pushed toward the Russian orbit again. The successors might be Russian oriented, and I think Russia is working in that direction. There is a lot of opposition to Shevardnadze in Georgia, and there is a lot of opposition to Aliyev in Azerbaijan," he said.
Analysts say the Caucasus seems destined to be a keenly contested region between Russia and the West with NATO quite likely the focal point.