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O’HANLON: Russia and the future

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2008

COMMENTARY:

Russia's bullying and brutal behavior toward Georgia this August has been inexcusable. But even for those of us who assign Russia at least 80 to 90 percent of the blame for the hostilities, it is important to ask if any Western actions or policies should be modified in the future to avoid worsening the problem.

In doing so, we need to keep our national security priorities in mind. Many issues that have divided the United States from Russia of late, such as independence for Kosovo, are not first-tier matters for the United States. By contrast, securing Russia's cooperation in opposing Iran's march toward a nuclear weapon, pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal, and trying to keep the peace in South and Central Asia are top-level priorities. We make a mistake by needlessly picking fights over secondary things if that harms our ability to cooperate on truly crucial matters.

Russia's recent behavior on many issues has been heavy-handed, reminiscent of 19th century imperial behavior, spiteful and indefensible. But only occasionally has it been entirely cynical. Russia really appears to feel genuinely slighted by the new world order, by what has happened over the years when it lost prestige after the end of the Cold War, by NATO's expansion to its doorstep in a process that has now included the three Baltic States.

With its confidence, wealth and military back - at least to an extent - Russia seems intent on making a statement to make amends. Its invasion of Georgia was such a statement. And it was carried out in a fairly extreme way.

At least Moscow does not now seem bent on forcing President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia from power, or overrunning all of his country. But it has gone well beyond a forcible incursion into South Ossetia and Abkhazia - an action that, however much we might have disliked it, could have been partly explained as a response to many Western countries' premature decision this year to give Kosovo its independence from Serbia. (That would have been a huge stretch, since NATO intervened in Kosovo as 1 million people were being forcibly displaced from their homes by Serbia, far worse than anything Georgia did in its autonomous enclaves even if Mr. Saakashvili did not handle the recent situation very well. But it still would have been better than what Russia actually did.)

This brings us to the question of what to do next. Assuming that the war really does end with most of Georgia intact and its elected leader still in power, we need near-term steps as well as a longer-term strategy.

Some of the ideas bandied about in recent days, before the Russian invasion stopped, will probably look extreme with the perspective of a few weeks or months. For example, the idea of boycotting the Russian Olympics in 2014 will seem strange, since it will affect an event occurring six years after a weeklong battle, assuming it really is about over. Sen. John McCain's idea of expelling Russia from the G-8 is closer to the mark, given its promptness and timeliness. Even that might best be scaled back to a temporary suspension - with Russia's return contingent on no further shenanigans.

But the harder question is about the future, and most of all about the West's relationship with Georgia as well as other former Soviet republics.

We are in a predicament. To continue down the path of likely NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine would risk causing even worse troubles with Russia over a second-tier geostrategic issue when we need Moscow's help in first-tier issues (not to mention the fact that were Georgia in NATO and then again attacked by Russia we would have a huge and dangerous predicament on our hands).

Yet we cannot capitulate to Russian bullying and deny Georgia and Ukraine membership out of fear, either.

In this situation, two principles should guide further U.S. action. First, we should avoid rushing to do anything. The best policy will avoid committing to major, enduring decisions on matters such as NATO membership, since it is time for tempers to cool and provocations to cease among Georgians and Russians. Second, we need a new concept for expanding NATO. Perhaps it is time to consider Russian membership - not now, of course, and probably never with Mr. Putin or Mr. Medvedev in power, but someday. At least Russia might be offered the option, assuming it satisfies NATO membership criteria, even as we emphasize to Moscow's future leaders that they will have no veto over the possible membership of others.

To be sure, a reasonable Russia would recognize that NATO is nonoffensive and that an expanded NATO intends it no harm or insult. Similarly, it would see that a small missile defense capability in Poland and the Czech Republic is nonthreatening.

But Russia, angry and frustrated, is not being reasonable, and that is a fact of life policymakers need take into account. Without giving Moscow a veto over our national security decisions, we need to do a somewhat better job of taking its likely reactions to our decisions into account. That, after all, is the essence of strategy.

Michael O'Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.