Russia: Ease Moscow's Suspicions

Russia has reason to feel betrayed by the process of NATO expansion, begun in 1997. Seven years earlier, the Russians believe, American and German officials working on German reunification pledged not to take advantage of Moscow's weakness by extending NATO into Russia's traditional backyard. By reneging on that promise, Western leaders have made Russians doubt their trustworthiness.

To the Kremlin, the expansion process has also seemed to be based on dishonest premises. U.S. officials advertised it as a way of promoting democracy, of forcing ex-Soviet states to reform. But the democratic commitment of NATO's first ex-communist entrants—Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic—was never in doubt. And if the Americans truly believed that NATO membership was the best way to guarantee free elections and constitutional rights, why didn't they immediately offer 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 another lesson. The process went ahead because Moscow was too weak to stop it. This told the Russians that to have a say in European affairs, they needed to be able to assert themselves militarily. Last summer's war in Georgia was one result.

Given this history, what should the West do now about Russia? We have no good options. In the wake of the war, some in the United States renewed the call to welcome Georgia into NATO. But NATO is a mutual-defense pact. Making Georgia a member would mean that we'd have to come 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. The U.S. military is already seriously overstretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet doing nothing would look like a retreat in the face of Russian aggression.

In the short term, the incoming U.S. president needs to 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. Perhaps, but the consequences of deferral are preferable to the costs of expansion—including 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. 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.

It's true that the present Russian regime hardly inspires the kind of trust and confidence that genuinely cooperative relations require. And that's not likely to change 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.

Our best hope lies in the economy. Russia's stock market fell sharply and capital fled the country after the Georgia war. 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, if only by subjecting the country to punishment for acting aggressively. In the meantime, however, things will remain difficult. Barack Obama won't be able to heal relations completely. But he should try not to make them worse.