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Opinion

Russia's payback

NATO disrespected Russia for too long. Now the Alliance must regroup.

By Andrew J. Bacevich / August 15, 2008



Boston

Poke a bear often enough and you're likely to get bitten. As the crisis over Georgia continues, this describes where the West finds itself today in its relations with Russia.

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Amid conflicting reports of Russia's commitment to a cease-fire, one thing is clear: Moscow scored a crushing geopolitical victory this week. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that the US must choose between a "virtual project" with Georgia, or a real partnership with Russia.

After days of evident disarray, only now is the West cobbling together a response: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit Georgia in a symbolic show of support, US Air Force cargo jets are delivering small amounts of humanitarian aid, and NATO ministers will meet Tuesday to consider the crisis. When they do, they should remember how we got to this point.

The cold war's end nearly two decades ago left Russia badly weakened. Adhering to the iron laws of politics, the West immediately set out to exploit its advantage.

NATO, a military alliance founded to contain Soviet power, embarked upon an aggressive program of eastward enlargement, incorporating into its ranks former Soviet satellites such as Hungary and Poland and former Soviet republics such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Although the Kremlin objected vociferously, the West ignored these protests.

During the 1990s, NATO also redefined its purpose. In the phrase of the day, the alliance needed either to "go out of area" or "go out of business." Going out of area meant refashioning itself into an instrument of intervention, an impulse that found expression in 1999 when the alliance launched a war against Serbia on behalf of the Kosovar Albanians. Russia, self-assigned protector of the Slavs, protested. The West gave the Kremlin the back of its hand.

In the present decade, concerned about protecting Europe from a missile attack by Iran, the Bush administration is intent on installing a sophisticated antimissile radar system in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland. The Kremlin, suspecting that the defenses are directed against Russia as well, objected. Once again, the West disregarded Russian protests.

Today Russia is no longer weak. In the age of Vladimir Putin – still the prime mover as prime minister under President Dmitri Medvedev – it is no longer willing to play the patsy. Through its incursion into Georgia, a US friend that has eagerly sought to become NATO's newest member, the Kremlin sends a signal to the West: This far and no further. Russia will not tolerate any more Western intrusions into what it considers its rightful sphere of influence.

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