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Who Made Russia Attack?

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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, August 18, 2008

As Russian forces loot and occupy a neighboring state, conscripting Georgian civilians at gunpoint to sweep their city streets, it's not uncommon, in Moscow or in Washington, to find America at fault.

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Russia has gone over to the dark side -- or, in the Moscow version, has finally stood up for itself -- in understandable reaction to U.S. disrespect, according to this view. And the next president should learn a lesson from this: that there are limits to how far Russia can or should be pushed.

This narrative of American provocation cites a long list of grievances, but the principal and original sin is NATO expansion. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States encouraged the newly free nations of Central and Eastern Europe to join a military alliance whose founding purpose had been containment of the U.S.S.R. Russia hated the idea from the start, and the United States should have known that Moscow, once it recovered its strength, would exact retribution.

But was this really something that was done to, or even against, Russia? The vision behind NATO expansion under both President Bill Clinton and President Bush was a Europe whole and free. The carrot of NATO membership was dangled, first of all, to ease the dangers of transition. Applicant countries had to promise civilian control of their militaries, fair treatment of ethnic minorities and respect for international borders. Given the terrible things that might have accompanied the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and Czechoslovakia -- Yugoslavia on a far greater scale -- the policy was amazingly successful.

Of course, applicant nations had an additional motive: They wanted an insurance policy against the possibility that Russia might eventually revert to its old form and seek hegemony over them. America sympathized but also hoped that Russia would cooperate with and someday even join NATO -- that it would recognize the potential benefits of living as part of a neighborhood of prosperous, freely trading, democratic nations. It did not seem crazy to hope that Russians themselves would notice how much better off Germans are today, for example, living in respectful peace with smaller neighbors such as Denmark and Belgium than they were when Germany sought domination.

But Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000, had a different vision of Russia's place in the world. Russia "has tended to feel absolutely secure only when everybody else, particularly those around its borders, feels absolutely insecure," Russia hand Strobe Talbott noted last week, and Putin fell squarely in that tradition. At home, he quashed political opposition and independent media. He brought Russia's mineral riches back under state control and then began using them -- oil and natural gas in particular -- to enforce obeisance abroad.

And he viewed NATO expansion as an affront, as something done to Russia, not because he imagined that Estonia or Georgia or even NATO itself ever would attack Russia, but because it complicated Russia's drive for hegemony. Seeing the world as a contest among spheres of influence, he could not imagine that the leaders behind NATO might see things differently.

So NATO expansion is an affront only to the kind of Russia that the West would find unacceptable in any case. But, even if America has not sought to encircle or strangle Russia, should it not have been more sensitive to Russia's wounded pride? Might Russia have evolved more democratically if Washington had been more deferential?

Maybe so, but there's not much evidence to support such a theory. The West spent a good part of the past 17 years worrying about Russia's dignity -- expanding the Group of Seven industrial nations to the G-8, for example -- and it's not clear such therapy had any effect. Putin had his own reasons for stifling democracy, and, to quote Talbott again, the "more authoritarian or totalitarian" Russia has been, "the more aggressively it asserts its interests overseas." The unhealthy cycle is on display now: Hearing only about Georgian "genocide" and aggression on state-controlled television, Russians cannot understand Western criticism of Russia's actions as anything but further evidence of unfairness, which could be used to justify more aggressive behavior.

What does all this mean for the next president? By all means he should cooperate with Russia when possible, and he should remain open to the idea that Russia might one day join NATO and other international arrangements on terms of mutual respect.

But if the hope is that greater understanding of and deference to Russia's imperial ambitions would tame those ambitions, the historical analogies are not encouraging.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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