Upon Barack Obamas election, the Russians made threats to U.S. allies over their acceptance of a U.S. missile defense system. Also, Russia recently sent its first large military force to Latin America since the end of the Cold War to participate in naval exercises off the Venezuelan coast. Is this a flagrant test of a new and inexperienced president, much as Nikita Khrushchev tested the neophyte John F. Kennedy when he first took office in 1961?
More likely, Russian behavior is merely putting the new president on notice that Russia is stronger now and cannot be kicked around anymoreas it was during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Meanwhile, the lame duck Bush crowd is still polishing its boots to take another whack.
Despite investigations by human rights groups indicating that Georgia started the recent Russian-Georgian war and parliamentary testimony by Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a former Georgian ambassador to Moscow and confidant of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, that Georgia initiated the conflict, the Bush administration had the chutzpah to demand that its NATO allies admit Georgia and the Ukraine into the alliance without meeting the usual requirements of defense reform and improved military capabilities. The main reason that Georgia started the war by attacking the breakaway region of South Ossetia, according to Kitsmarishvili, was that Saakashvili thought he had U.S. backing for this aggressive tack. If given a NATO security shield, the belligerent Saakashvili might become even more reckless and involve the United States in a confrontation with a nuclear-armed power.
The Russian-Georgian war, however, should have made both Ukraine and Georgia leery of depending entirely on a faraway nation for security, given the reality of Russias local conventional military superiority and nuclear deterrent. Ultimately, if it came down to sacrificing U.S. cities in a nuclear war with Russia to save these two non-strategic countries, the United States would most assuredly balk. The Ukrainian public has apparently faced this realitysouring on NATO membershipand the tottering Ukrainian government can hardly push through Ukraines entry into the alliance even if the United States manages to bludgeon the reluctant Germany, Italy, France, Spain and other NATO allies to agree to admit both nations.
When Russia was weaker, in the 1990s and during the current decade, the U.S. pushed the potentially hostile NATO alliance up to Russias borders, established bases in the former Soviet states of Central Asia to contain Russia and China, detached Kosovo from Russias Serbian ally, and rerouted energy pipelines around Russian territory. These aggressive actions in Russias sphere of influence humiliated Russia and have led to in-your-hemisphere Russian naval exercises with Venezuela and threats against U.S. allies that will host U.S. missile defenses on their territories.
Some U.S. media outlets have claimed that Russia is beginning to behave as if the Cold War were still afoot. These sources are blind to the fact that in U.S. policy circles, the Cold War mentality was never abandoned. After promising Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if Germany were reunited within NATO, the alliance would not expand, the United States then broke this promise and attempted to grab all the territory in Europe that it could before the Russian bear once again became strong. That has not happened and the humiliated and angry Russian public is pressing Russias leaders to take a strong position vis-à-vis the United States.
Threats against allies accepting missile defense hardware and naval exercises in the U.S. sphere of influence are Russias way of signaling that further NATO expansion to include Russias key neighbors will meet stiff resistance. The up-to-now oblivious U.S. government needs to finally heed these warnings. More important, the incoming Obama administration and the U.S. public should ponder whether they want to ultimately hold their cities hostage to nuclear holocaust to preserve the territorial integrity of these two faraway and non-strategic states. The answer should be an emphatic no.