How the West Turned Russia Against It

Last summer's war in Georgia worsened the already strained relations between Moscow and Washington and the rest of Europe. Now, in the aftermath of that conflict, an even more serious crisis looms. The key to avoiding it is to recognize what's gone wrong in diplomacy with Russia over the last dozen years. Only by understanding this can the next president avoid making things even worse in the short term—and, in the long run, set a course that might finally integrate Russia more fully into the West. (Story continued below...)

The trigger for the Georgia war was Tbilisi's attempt to reassert control over South Ossetia. Russia's anger at Georgia predated that event, however: it stemmed from Georgia's efforts to join NATO, as other ex-communist states have done. And for this Washington bears direct responsibility. The U.S. policy of expanding NATO eastward after the end of the cold war was a key factor in the deterioration of Russian relations with the West.

The problem for Moscow was that NATO expansion seemed to break a Western promise. In 1990, the Russians believed, U.S. and German officials pledged (in connection with German reunification) not to take advantage of Moscow's weakness by extending NATO into Russia's traditional backyard. By reneging on that promise, Western leaders made Russians doubt their trustworthiness. The expansion process also seemed based on dishonest premises. U.S. officials advertised it as a way of promoting democracy. But the democratic commitment of NATO's first ex-communist entrants—Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic—was never in doubt. And if the United States had truly believed that NATO membership was the best way to guarantee free elections and constitutional rights, they should have immediately offered it to the largest ex-communist country of them all: Russia itself. Instead, Moscow was told it would never be able to join.

NATO expansion taught Russia one other unfortunate geopolitical lesson. The process proceeded, despite Russian ob-jections, because Moscow was too weak to stop it. This told the Russians that to have a say in future European affairs, they needed to be able to assert themselves militarily. Georgia was the product of such thinking.

Because NATO expansion took place against Russia's wishes and excluded Russia itself, it destroyed all hopes of creating a new kind of cooperation-based security system in Europe. Such cooperation flourished briefly at the end of the cold war, leading to a remarkable series of arms-control agreements, the peaceful management of the collapse of communism and the forging of the broad international coalition to fight the first gulf war. But it died in 1997 when NATO expansion began.

Given this history, what should the West do now about Georgia? It has no good options. In the wake of the war, some in the United States renewed their call for bringing Georgia into NATO. But NATO is a mutual-defense pact. Making Georgia a member would require coming to the country's aid should fighting with Russia break out once more. This would require putting Western troops, tanks, aircraft and perhaps even nuclear weapons on Russia's border—to which the Russians would respond with comparable forces. That would bring Europe back to the kind of military standoff it faced during the cold war. Given this danger, Western Europe will almost surely veto Georgian NATO membership. Should Washington insist, it could spark another acrimonious transatlantic dispute.

The U.S. military is also already seriously overstretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the public has repeatedly been told that NATO expansion will cost nothing. This would make it very difficult for the U.S. government to deploy troops to the Caucasus. Yet doing nothing would also be difficult, as it would undercut America's declarations of solidarity with Georgia following the war and would look like a retreat in the face of Russian aggression, as well as a violation of the U.S. pledge to offer NATO membership to any deserving European country.

How, then, should the next U.S. president resolve this dilemma? In the short term, he should think like a doctor: first, do no harm. This means deferring any offer of NATO membership to Georgia (and Ukraine, for that matter). Some may object that this will reward Russia for its belligerence and encourage bad behavior in the future. Perhaps, but the consequences of deferral are preferable to the costs of expansion: a serious deterioration in relations with Moscow.

At the same time, the West should renew its security cooperation with Russia. NATO must eventually either include Russia or give way to a new and more inclusive security order. To be sure, a NATO with Russia as a member would be a very different alliance. For one thing, it would border China. But today's NATO has already changed profoundly from that of 20 years ago. In security affairs as in other areas of human endeavor, change is the law of life.

Of course, it's not going to be easy to re-establish a cooperative security order with the present Russian government. This government has steadily restricted democratic practices, has seen many of its critics murdered (and been mysteriously unable to catch their killers) and has encouraged groups espousing ugly nationalism. It hardly inspires the kind of trust and confidence that genuinely cooperative relations require. And that's not likely to change any time soon: the government is popular with the Russian public and is the product of powerful social forces, notably the country's historically authoritarian political culture. The West lacks the leverage to change any of that.

The best hope lies in the economy. Russia's stock market fell sharply and capital fled the country after the Georgia war and when Moscow threatened to exert greater control over private holdings. These developments contradict the regime's assumption that political authoritarianism and economic prosperity can coexist. In the next decade or two, the continuing development of free-market institutions and practices in Russia will have a salutary impact on its politics: such institutions and practices, when transferred to the political sphere, can promote democracy.

Long-term trends may therefore produce positive changes in Russia that will make it possible to resume a cooperative relationship. In the meantime, however, things will remain difficult. The next president won't be able to fix relations completely. He should therefore concentrate on not making them worse.