Opinion

Russia's payback

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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," has just been published.

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