NATO disrespected Russia for too long. Now the Alliance must regroup.
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After a long run of losing hands, Russia will likely take this trick. The West, especially Europe, needs Russian oil and gas and is no position to impose sanctions that have any bite. Furthermore, even if NATO were inclined to ride to Georgia's rescue, it lacks the ability to do so. Paradoxically, as the alliance expanded geographically and went out of area, it also shed military capacity. NATO forces already have their hands full, fighting Taliban guerrillas in faraway Afghanistan. The once-formidable alliance is tapped out: there's nothing left to divert to the Caucasus, or anywhere else for that matter.Skip to next paragraph
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As the old saying goes: The sky grows dark with chickens coming home to roost. Russia's brutal treatment of Georgia is payback for the West's disdainful treatment of Russia back when it was prostrate. Western weakness in responding to this challenge reflects the folly of allowing NATO to lose sight of its core mission, which is to protect Europe, not pacify Central Asia. Meanwhile, the Bush administration, despite America's vaunted military power, can do little more than protest, remonstrate, and offer Georgia symbolic assistance. Still trying to extricate itself from the quagmire of Iraq, the US already has more than enough military commitments to keep itself busy.
Does all of this signify a return to the 1930s, when totalitarian dictators got away with swallowing up small states, thereby setting the stage for a far-larger disaster? No, not if the West behaves sensibly, at least.
Russia is not our friend, but it need not be our enemy. The Kremlin's ambitions are not ideological but imperial. Putin is not a totalitarian; he is a nationalist, intent on ensuring that Russia be treated with respect and, within the area defining its "near abroad," even deference. Yet beyond its immediate neighborhood the danger posed by a resurgent Russia is a limited one, in no way comparable to the threat once posed by the Soviet Union. When it comes to projecting power, today's Russian Army is a shadow of yesterday's Red Army.
The chief lesson of the Georgian crisis is this: The post-cold war holiday from history during which Europe took its security for granted has now ended. NATO's eastward march at Russia's expense has reached its limits. Enlarging the alliance further by incorporating Georgia or even Ukraine as member states will entail costs likely to be prohibitive.
The priority facing the West – and especially the major European powers – is to get serious about repairing its defenses. That means reorienting and rebuilding NATO. An alliance able to defend its frontiers and manifestly intent on doing so will have little to fear from Putin's Russia. The West's response to a Russia that has flexed its muscles in Georgia needs to be unambiguous: This far and no further.