It should have been obvious to everybody, but nobody wanted to mention it until the Russians pushed back the Georgians from South Ossetia and crushed their armed forces. NATO â€“ in its new post-Cold War, post 9/11 configuration â€“ is naked. Or at best, it has only a fig leaf to cover its impotence.
Perhaps we should thank the Russians for stating the obvious and putting a little realism into East-West relations in the age of Bush and Putin.
NATO is a defense alliance that was created after World War II by the United States, Canada and most of the countries of Western Europe to keep Western Europe from being overrun by the Soviet Union. It was founded on the understanding that an attack on one member country would be treated as an attack on all of them. That principle was never tested, since neither side dared risk obliteration in a contest between the world's two strongest nuclear powers. There were some who thought the NATO pledge could not be relied upon. French President Charles de Gaulle doubted whether the United States would put its own cities at risk by attacking Moscow in response to a Russian attack on a European city. Those doubts are just as valid today.
No American President in his right mind is going to risk a nuclear war to defend a small ex-Soviet state like Georgia. And NATO is not in a position to fight a non-nuclear war in the Caucasus, where the Russians would have the tactical advantage of favorable terrain and short supply lines. The East Europeans (who still fear their Russian former masters) have the will but not the means to confront the Russians. The West Europeans have some of the means to put up a fight but not the will. And the U.S., which has the only armed forces really capable of overwhelming the Russians, is busy elsewhere.
The Russians know all this, just as Adolph Hitler knew what he was doing when he invaded Poland in 1939 despite British and French guarantees to defend that country. Germany's dictator was betting the British and French leaders were all talk and no action.
Of course Russia is now a partner with the West and even has an official representative at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Moreover, the United States needs the Russians more than it needs the Georgians. It needs Russia's help to resolve the problems of nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Iraq, Iran and other threats to world peace. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged this week, it would not be in America's interests to cut all contacts with Russia.
And the Putin/Medvedev team who run Russia are not Nazis. They represent a new generation of Russians (more or less democratically elected, as was Hitler initially) who resented their country's weakness and humiliation in the Yeltsin years and are seeking the respect they believe their country's improved economic and military status deserves.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, successive American administrations have paid little attention to Russia's own security concerns and interests. It may make sense to an American government to expand NATO into former Russian-controlled European buffer states and to place American missiles on Russia's borders. But to the Russians, that looks like encirclement and it makes them distinctly uneasy. The Bush administration's recent effort to extend NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine finally crossed a Russian red line. The Russians greeted it with the same shock Americans would feel if Moscow tried to enrol Mexico and Canada in a Russian-backed military alliance.
The Russians see Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as erratic and untrustworthy, and believe he was egged on by President Bush, who treats him as a poster boy for American-style democracy. Saakashvili's decision to send troops into South Ossetia was foolhardy, to say the least, and touched off a long-prepared Russian response that smashed the tiny Georgian army. As Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian representative to NATO, told reporters in Brussels this week, if NATO had already accepted Georgia as a full member, the western alliance and Russia would now be at war. â€œAre you ready to risk your prosperity and risk your lives and the lives of your children for Saakashvili?â€ he asked rhetorically.
The chances that either Georgia or Ukraine will gain membership in NATO in the near future are now slim. For one thing, countries that have unresolved territorial disputes (such as Georgia's problems with its breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia) or potential territorial disputes (such as Ukraine's problems with the Russian naval base on its territory) are not normally considered eligible for full membership. Above all, full membership for Georgia and Ukraine, with the defense guarantees that involves, would be meaningless.
What the world has witnessed for the past week from Washington and Brussels has been pure gesture politics â€“ taps on the wrist that do not really hurt, or tough-sounding threats that cannot be backed up. A White House pronouncement before the president goes off on vacation, or Condoleezza Rice's pledge that â€œNATO intends to support the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Georgiaâ€ is not going to impress anybody.
If you want to know what the real world thinks about the current frictions between Russia and the West, check the financial markets. The cost of insuring the debts of Ukraine has just shot up to the highest level since that country's Orange Revolution in 2004. People who put their money where their mouth is must think Ukraine could be next on Russia's hit list.