Russia-NATO Divide Widens Amid Georgia Conflict

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It is now nearly 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But it did not take long for the crisis in Georgia to make it feel as though the Cold War never really ended.

Russian troops still occupy portions of Georgia and relations between Russia and the nations of the Western alliance, NATO, are worsening.

But this time NATO is a far different organization than it was during the Cold War.

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was created in 1949 to confront the Soviet Union and protect Western Europe from a possible Soviet invasion. That enemy, the Soviet Union, disappeared on Christmas Day 1991.

NATO remained and expanded, bringing in ten new members from the former Soviet bloc. This was supposed to change the political thinking of the former enemies.

But according to Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group in Brussels, it hasn't changed enough.

"There's still too many people making policy on both sides that still think in Cold War terms," Stroehlein says.

The debate over whether to expand NATO occurred most intensely during the Clinton administration, which answered that question with a loud "yes," first bringing in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

The nations of the former Soviet bloc sought entrance to the NATO fold out of fear of Russia, says Masha Lippman of the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

"They remembered the giant — the monster that occupied them — and they wanted protection against that fearful enemy," Lippman says. "And they sought protection in the rival bloc."

Russia, weak and uncertain of its future, also felt a leftover anxiety from the Cold War, as it saw its former adversary, the Western military alliance, move closer to its borders, says Masha Lippman.

"So two irrational fears, on two sides, both driven by the Cold War memories," Lippman says. "The west, NATO, responded to the fear of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, but not to the fears of Russia."

Both President Clinton and President Bush after him argued that the expansion of NATO had nothing to do with Russia — it was a means to ensure Europe would become whole and free.

And indeed for the U.S., NATO did change, becoming a means to project military power — first in Kosovo in 1999, then in Afghanistan after Sept. 11.

But the new members saw a different purpose for NATO, says Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University.

"For the newer [nations], they tend to see the alliance more as a traditional collective defense organization against a possibly resurgent Russia," Kupchan says.

Apparently that's the NATO that Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili hoped would come to rescue him after the Russia invasion, Stroehlein says.

"He's always been trying to internationalize this and to try to get support," Stroehlein says. "That's part of his whole plan for getting into NATO. And probably he just completely miscalculated in assuming that he was already protected by some kind of shield which simply wasn't there."

Russians never really believed the assurances of American leaders that NATO expansion wasn't about the old enemy. When Russia was weak in the 1990s, there was nothing it could do.

But in recent years under Vladimir Putin, skyrocketing oil prices brought new life to Russia's economy. Russia's warnings became sharper, especially when Putin said earlier this year that NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia would be seen as a military threat in Moscow. The West should have paid more attention, Lippman says.

"Russia here is saying: 'I was weak, you took us for granted. You expanded against our will. But in the meantime, we grew stronger. And now we are against it, and please do not ignore our opinion. Please do not take us for granted again,'" Lippman says.

NATO's response to Russia's invasion of Georgia was a decision this week to freeze formal consultative ties with Moscow, and Moscow may respond similarly. This, says Stroehlein, is a very dangerous turn of events.

"The Russians fall even further into this spheres of influence thinking and Cold War thinking, and they see NATO as only an anti-Russian kind of alliance," Stroehlein says. "The danger is the West does exactly the same thing, particularly in the U.S. They say: 'Well everybody is playing by the old script now, and we all just going to fall back.' That would be really devastating for international affairs."

At the moment, it looks like that's exactly what's taking place.

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