The Georgia Crisis: A Blow to NATO

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Darko Bandic / AP

Russian soldiers block the road on the outskirts of Gori

Washington hawks insist that the remedy to Russia's military humiliation of Georgia is to expedite the smaller country's incorporation into NATO. After all, Moscow might think twice about attacking any nation able to trigger the Atlantic Alliance's Article 5, which obliges all member states to respond militarily to an attack on any one of them. President Bush, in fact, toured Europe last spring to stump aggressively for Georgia and Ukraine to be granted Membership Action Plans, the first step toward joining the Alliance. But despite Bush's high-profile campaigning, the proposal was rebuffed at NATO's April summit by 10 member states, led by key U.S. allies Germany and France. That rejection, said Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain, "might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia," and he urged European NATO members to "revisit the decision."

But many of the Europeans draw the opposite conclusion. They see last week's events in Georgia as vindicating their caution over granting Georgia NATO membership. Indeed, many in Europe see the Bush Administration's military support for Georgia and its trumpeting of Tbilisi's cause in NATO as having emboldened President Mikheil Saakashvili to launch his reckless attack on South Ossetia.

If Russia's brutal response to Georgia's provocation had, in fact, obliged NATO to intervene, the Atlantic Alliance itself might have faced a terminal crisis. Most of its member states have no enthusiasm for confronting a resurgent Russia in the Caucasus, traditionally a Russian sphere of influence. The Alliance, for one thing, is having enough trouble maintaining 71,000 troops in Afghanistan, where they are managing only to tread water against mounting odds. Other arguments against confrontation: much of Western Europe is wholly dependent on Russian energy supplies, and European negotiators believe there is little chance of a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear standoff without committed support from Moscow.

So, regardless of the appeals of Senator McCain — and his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama — the events of the past week have more likely placed Georgia's NATO membership in the deep freeze for the foreseeable future, even if the Alliance remains rhetorically committed to the idea in principle. If so, Moscow can count what has transpired as a major victory: it has prevented the advance of a rival military alliance into Russia's backyard.

Russia's very purpose in its "punishment" of Georgia has been to warn neighbors inclined to challenge Moscow from under a Western security umbrella that if a storm is provoked, that umbrella offers precious little protection. The conflict was never simply about Georgia and its restive minority regions; it was always about NATO, as well as the regional balance of power between Russia and the U.S.

Putin has used the opportunity presented by Saakashvili to show Russia's neighbors that Washington's tough talk could not be matched by any meaningful response to the Kremlin's military campaign. Bush may now be trying to play catch-up with his tough talk, but reversing the impact of the Russian offensive will require a lot more than stitching up a bloodied Georgia and casting Russia out of the G-8 or boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics. (Thursday's announcement of a deal between the U.S. and Poland to station missile interceptors on Russia's doorstep over increasingly bellicose objections from Moscow may have been timed to signal resolve in the face of Russian aggression, but that plan was in the works long before the Georgia showdown and is unlikely to have any effect on the Georgia situation.)

When NATO holds its last summit of the Bush presidency in December, the symbolic language may remain soothingly supportive of membership for Georgia, but don't expect to see it granted a Membership Action Plan. Indeed, the events of the past week have called into question the very purpose of NATO and its relationship with Russia.

While many Western critics declared the Russian actions of the past week a reversion to Cold War tactics, Moscow sees NATO itself as a Cold War relic. The Russians complain that following the demise of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Treaty Organization, the U.S. reneged on promises to create a new global security order and instead moved to expand its own Cold War military alliance — NATO — into Moscow's own sphere of influence.

NATO's very purpose had been to contain the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II. The Red Army had just broken the back of Hitler's Wehrmacht and put Moscow in control of the Baltic states (annexed at the outset of the war), Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. Having watched Central Europe transformed by Soviet military power into a patchwork of authoritarian vassal states, Western Europe was only too willing to join an all-for-one military alliance with the U.S. and Canada to even up the odds in the event of further Soviet expansionism. Nor was it surprising that decades later, those Europeans who had actually lived under the Soviet heel would race to join the same alliance at the first opportunity. The anti-Moscow military alliance not only remained intact in the decade after the Cold War but also advanced toward Russia's shrinking borders. Russians saw all of that as strategic encirclement with hostile intent.

Last month, General Norton Schwartz, nominated as chief of the U.S. Air Force, said at his confirmation hearing that the U.S. needed to send a warning to Moscow in the wake of Russian media reports claiming that Moscow was weighing the deployment of nuclear-capable bombers in Cuba in response to U.S. missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russians should be told that moving bombers to Cuba "crosses a red line for the United States of America," he said. Let's just say that the Russian military brass have long felt the same way about Ukraine and Georgia being militarily integrated into a rival alliance.

Russia could do little to stem NATO's advance during the economic and social collapse presided over by Boris Yeltsin. But Putin's Russia, flush with petrodollars, has re-emerged as a geopolitical player at the same time that U.S. influence has been waning. With the bloodletting in Georgia, the Russians are telling Europe that the current security architecture is dysfunctional — a message Moscow sent earlier in the year through a vague proposal to replace NATO with a pan-European security structure in which Russia would be an equal partner.

In Washington and in many former Soviet satellite states, the response to the Georgia debacle will be to continue NATO's eastward expansion and stiffen its resolve to contain a resurgent Russia. But in Western Europe, there will be growing doubts over the value of a security system built upon a structure designed to isolate and contain Russia. The problem, of course, is that NATO operates strictly by consensus, and in the absence of such consensus, paralysis may set in. Indeed, it may yet emerge that Putin's campaign in the Caucasus has succeeded not only in keeping Georgia out of NATO but in dealing a body blow to the Alliance itself.