Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz argued recently on this site that the United States should neither be "isolating" Russia nor drifting toward "confrontation." The Post's Masha Lipman urged us to avoid "Cold War preconceptions and illusions." Unfortunately, these distinguished commentators are aiming at straw men: No serious observer thinks we face a new Cold War or that isolating Russia because of its increasing foreign adventurism is a real solution. U.S. opposition to Russia's recent behavior should not rest on a desire to "punish" Russia but on the critical need to brace Moscow before its behavior becomes even more unacceptable.
Russia has been growing increasingly belligerent for some time. Its invasion of Georgia is only the most recent and vicious indicator of its return not to the Cold War but to a thuggish, indeed czarist, approach to its neighbors. Vladimir Putin gave early warning in 2005, when he called the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." In the same speech, Putin lamented that "tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory." He may now be acting to reverse that "catastrophe," as further demonstrated by Moscow's embrace of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other efforts to interfere in that country's elections. Prudence based on history requires us to assess Russia's invasion of Georgia as more than an aberration until proven otherwise.
Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to threaten American interests: providing cover to Iran's nuclear weapons program by enthusiastically neutering sanctions resolutions at the U.N. Security Council and trying to market reactors to Tehran; selling high-end conventional weapons to Iran, Syria and other undesirables; using its oil and natural gas assets to intimidate Europe; making overtures to OPEC; and cozying up to Venezuela through joint Caribbean naval maneuvers, weapons sales and even agreeing to construct nuclear reactors.
Take the controversy over locating U.S. missile defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic. We fully informed Russia before withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that we would create a limited (but geographically national) missile defense system to protect against the handfuls of missiles that might be launched by states such as North Korea or Iran. As anyone can tell from looking at a globe, anti-missile sites in Europe wouldn't defend against the missile trajectories of a Russian strike on America. (That's why the Distant Early Warning Line was in Alaska and Canada, not Europe.) Russia's threats against Poland are aimed at intimidating Western Europe, an all-too-easy objective these days. We have real interests at stake, such as a route to the Caspian Basin's oil and gas assets that does not traverse Russia or Iran. If Moscow's marching through Georgia goes unopposed, marching will look more attractive elsewhere, starting with Ukraine, which has a large ethnic Russian population "beyond the fringes" of Moscow's control. "Legitimate security interests" do not justify invading and dismembering bordering countries.
A rational Russia policy has to escape the persistent romanticism of Moscow in recent administrations and the desire of some Europeans to close their eyes and hope things will work out. Too many Europeans believe they have passed beyond history and beyond external threats unless they themselves are "provocative." Last spring in Bucharest, that mentality led Germany and others to reject U.S. suggestions to put Georgia and Ukraine formally on a path to NATO membership. Moscow clearly read that rejection as a sign of weakness.
Ultimately, what most risks "provoking" Moscow is not Western resolve but Western weakness. This is where the real weight of history lies. Accordingly, attitude adjustment in Moscow first requires attitude adjustment in NATO capitals, and quickly, before Moscow's swaggering leaders draw the wrong lessons from their recent successes.
First, NATO must reverse the Bucharest summit mistake immediately. This is achievable before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. Admitting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into NATO has stabilized a possible zone of confrontation in the Baltics, and moving to bring in Ukraine and Georgia would eliminate a dangerous vacuum in the Black Sea region. Second, we should scale up rapidly in military cooperation with current and aspiring NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe to make it clear that more Russian adventurism is highly inadvisable. Hopefully, other NATO countries will join with us, but we should act bilaterally if need be. Third, we should proceed fully with missile defense plans, on which we have repeatedly offered Russia full involvement and cooperation, to protect us all from rogue-state threats.
Such an approach will not endanger Western security but enhance it. And if Russia takes offense, better to know that now than later, when the stakes for all concerned may be much higher.
John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad." He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.