* Some allies wary of provoking Russia at time of high
* Allies keen to avoid repeat of row at 2008 summit
* NATO divided over inviting Montenegro to membership talks
By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS, June 20 NATO countries, wary of
antagonising Russia, are unlikely to grant former Soviet
republic Georgia a formal step towards membership of the
alliance at a summit in September, NATO diplomats say.
With NATO-Russia tensions running high after Moscow's
annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region, the question of whether
to invite Georgia to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP),
putting the country closer to its goal of NATO membership, has
spawned conflicting views in the alliance.
Some allies oppose granting Georgia MAP membership, fearing
it could provoke Russian retaliation, whereas others say it
would look as if NATO was bowing to Russian pressure if it did
not. One NATO diplomat said the alliance was split 50:50 - and
therefore far from requuired consensus.
Hanging over the debate is the trauma of 2008 when Russia
fought a five-day war with Georgia over a rebel province.
Russian troops overran large parts of Georgia, humiliating its
army and systematically wrecking a new base built to NATO
After the war, Moscow recognised the breakaway regions of
Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations, making it
much harder for NATO to take in and defend a divided country.
Months before the war, at a Bucharest summit, NATO had
rebuffed U.S. demands Georgia and Ukraine be granted MAP while
promising the two ex-Soviet republics would join NATO one day.
Washington may now tread more cautiously.
If Georgia became a member of the alliance, members would be
obliged to intervene to defend it if it came under attack,
another factor that would weigh heavily in future decisions.
Russia, which has said that its annexation of Crimea in
March was influenced by the Western military alliance's
expansion into eastern Europe, has made no secret of its
hostility to its neighbour Georgia joining NATO.
NATO foreign ministers will discuss the prospects of Georgia
and three other countries that aspire to join NATO in Brussels
next week, with a final decision expected in September.
NATO's Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said in
April that NATO needed to convey "a strong and convincing
message on enlargement at our Wales summit."
"We will reaffirm that any decisions on future alliance
membership are for NATO members alone to take and that no third
party has any right of veto," he said.
Despite the defiant talk, some allies feel it would be
needlessly provocative to Russia - which still has several
thousand troops near Ukraine's border - to invite Georgia to
join MAP now.
"It's not very likely they will get MAP," one NATO diplomat,
speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
NATO should not show weakness, but it should also not take
steps "that would irritate Russia without bringing anything to
the alliance," he said.
But a diplomat from another country commented: "Not giving
MAP to Georgia because of Russia is the wrong thing to do."
MAP is a programme of advice, assistance and practical
support tailored to countries wishing to join the alliance.
One diplomat said around a dozen of NATO's 28 members were
reluctant to invite Georgia into MAP and predicted that the
alliance would be unable to reach the required consensus.
NATO appears likely to settle on a compromise by giving
Georgia a package of "reinforced cooperation" with NATO that
would fall short of MAP. This package could include measures
such as closer political cooperation, training the Georgian
armed forces and strengthening NATO's liaison office in Georgia.
The United States is putting a higher priority on preserving
alliance unity at a time when NATO is locked in confrontation
with Russia over Ukraine.
France thinks the timing is not right to invite Georgia to
join MAP and Germany is also opposed, the diplomats said.
Some allies question whether NATO - whose limited military
presence in eastern Europe has been exposed by the Ukraine
crisis - could credibly extend its security guarantee to
Georgia, with its two Russian-backed breakaway regions.
The hawks on the issue are the former Soviet republics in
the Baltics and some other east European countries, which argue
NATO should send a tough message to Russia by granting MAP.
In 2010, Ukraine's former pro-Russian President Viktor
Yanukovich ditched his country's goal of joining NATO. But
Georgia has doggedly pursued its ambition of NATO membership and
contributes 800 troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen offered encouragement in
loose terms at a defence ministers meeting this month.
"Georgia will be a member of NATO, provided that it fulfils
the requirements of membership," he said. "I am confident that
our next Summit will recognize Georgia's progress."
Georgian Defence Minister Irakly Alasania told Reuters after
talks with NATO counterparts this month he remained hopeful that
Georgia would be invited to join MAP in Wales but added: "I care
less about wordings (and) more about the actions on the ground."
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)