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Russia-NATO Divide Widens Amid Georgia Conflict

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Russia-NATO Divide Widens Amid Georgia Conflict

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Russia-NATO Divide Widens Amid Georgia Conflict

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION for NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. People who remember 1968 could be forgiven for feeling they've been sent back to it. Forty years ago this week, Soviet troops moved into Czechoslovakia. It was a major episode of the Cold War. Today, Russian troops are in Georgia, and as we're about to hear, again it has a lot to do with the friction between Russia and the West.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports on Moscow's confrontation with the U.S. and its allies.

MIKE SHUSTER: 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 in 1991. NATO remained and expanded, bringing in 10 new members from the former Soviet bloc. This was supposed to change the political thinking of the former enemies. But says Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group in Brussels, it hasn't changed enough.

Mr. ANDREW STROEHLEIN (International Crisis Group): There's still too many people making policy on both sides that still think in Cold War terms.

SHUSTER: 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 Lipman of the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

Ms. MASHA LIPMAN (Carnegie Center, Moscow): They remembered the giant, the monster that occupied them, and they wanted protection against that fearful enemy. And they sought protection in the rival bloc.

SHUSTER: 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 Lipman.

Ms. LIPMAN: So two irrational fears, on two sides, both driven by the Cold War memories. The West, NATO, responded to the fear of Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, but not to the fears of Russia.

SHUSTER: Both President Clinton and then 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 9/11. But the new members saw a different purpose for NATO, says Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University.

Professor CHARLES KUPCHAN (Georgetown University): For the newer members, they tend to see the alliance more as a traditional collective defense organization against a possibly resurgent Russia.

And apparently that's the NATO that Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili hoped would come to rescue him after the Russia invasion, says Andrew Stroehlein.

Mr. STROEHLEIN: He's always been trying to internationalize this and to try to get support. 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, says Masha Lippman.

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.

SHUSTER: 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 is a very dangerous turn of events, says Andrew Stroehlein.

Ms. STROEHLEIN: 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. The danger is that the West does exactly the same thing, particularly in the U.S. They say, okay, everybody is playing by the old script now, and we're all just going to fall back into that. That would be really devastating for international affairs.

SHUSTER: At the moment, it looks like that's exactly what's taking place. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Brussels.

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