If the West is going to single Russia out as an enemy, as Russians say these days, then Russians must prepare to defend themselves as best they can. They know they are too weak to best the United States or NATO in battle, but a prominent Russian official recently argued that Russia is at least not too weak to fight and make the soft, prosperous West uncomfortable. Another argued that Russia's nuclear arsenal, far from a cold-war artifact, is key to defending its interests in the world.
What brought this tough, cold-war-type talk back to Russia?
A betrayal, in the Russian view. By the middle of next year, NATO will announce which Central European countries, formerly in the Soviet sphere of influence, it will accept as full members. The Russian response, already, is anger and resentment. Russians voluntarily dissolved the Warsaw Pact, they say, and the West is betraying their good intentions by expanding into the vacuum. Further, NATO expansion sends a clear signal: The triumphant West wants to isolate Russia militarily into a shrinking geographical space.
Does this move by NATO really make the world a safer place?
We believe that it can - safer for Russians and their interests as well as for the West. Safer, even though the Russians are correct when they argue that they are the threat that NATO is guarding against.
If the Western allies are shy in admitting this point, just ask the Poles or the Czechs, not to mention the Baltic nations, which desperately want to join the alliance in future rounds (though the likelihood is slight). Above all, these countries fear aggression and instability in Russia.
The Russians have it wrong in an important way. NATO is not driving this expansion in a kind of quasi-imperialism. No one's being coerced to join. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the other former Soviet bloc states want in, badly. Just as they wanted out of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet sphere of influence. NATO is a voluntary association.
More to the point for the Russians, NATO can only be a maturing, stabilizing influence on the policies of its new members. Russia's western borders will be more secure and predictable, not less, if Russia's former, unwilling allies are ensconced in the Atlantic alliance. Joining an alliance is an act of compromise, and whatever confidence and security NATO gives to a country such as Poland will make that country more open to stronger ties with Russia.
The Russians, however, may be more inclined to see the spreading global influence of the United States in NATO's expansion. That's why including them as much as possible in the decisionmaking structure of the alliance, possibly through a treaty between NATO and Russia, is crucial. Such steps can help to allay Russia's fears that NATO could become a close-by threat.
If NATO expansion, in the long run, were to make Russia a more insecure country, then NATO expansion might well be counterproductive. The world could well be a more dangerous place for all of us. But the West should not act on Russian misperceptions. It should work to correct them.