A few months ago, Senator John McCain said some harsh things about Russia. Not many people agreed with his views. But it turns out that one important man did: Vladimir Putin.
Russia's recent activity in Georgia means that the next American president and our European friends will have one very big issue on the top of the transatlantic agenda. This is not the Russia everyone hoped would be an integral democratic partner of the West. But what does Moscow want? And what should NATO and the European Union do about it?
It will be tempting to see Russia's dismemberment of Georgia as either a murky ethnic conflict or a Putinesque fit of anger against Presidents Bush and Saakashvili. No doubt these are part of the story but not the most important part. Like a thunderclap on a clear summer day, Georgia foretells a broader crisis in the making, a struggle over the shape and nature of the post-Cold War settlement.
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush called for a "Europe whole and free" and, thanks to Ronald Reagan's military and naval buildup, to German courage, allied solidarity, a strong hand in Washington, and Gorbachev's statesmanship, the Cold War was brought to a peaceful conclusion. After German unification, the Russians themselves ended the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact to general relief and considerable rejoicing.
The Western leaders of that day then faced a dilemma. Should NATO and the European Union preclude membership for the peoples between Germany and Russia, the other side of the Iron Curtain? When the new Yeltsin government floundered in 1993-94 in the face of a resurgent Communist Party and vitriolic nationalists, President Clinton and his European colleagues decided to open membership for those who could pass the democratic and economic tests rather than chance yet another crisis in the middle of Europe. Many did. But the peaceful evolution of European-wide politics promised by the new era, including a prospering democracy in Russia, did not quite materialize.
There were two big reasons. First, the Western allies were too slow to arrest Serbian President Milosevic's aggression in Croatia and Bosnia, or his ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, all of which produced the worst massacres since World War II. But the results of that intervention, including Serbia's turn toward the West, and especially the independence of Kosovo with strong US support, redrew the map of a sovereign state despite Moscow's wishes. In the eyes of those who thought that the areas beyond a united Germany should be neutral until Moscow recovered its strength, it appeared that the West was moving east, sometimes by diplomacy, sometimes by force, while Russian interests were disregarded.
Second, the United States and the Europeans put too much trust in Yeltsin himself, who proved better at taking things apart than putting them together. When the democratic and economic experiments of the 1990s turned into chaos, corruption, and impoverishment, the scene was set for the reappearance of old concepts. The foreigners had supported Yeltsin and so they, too, were to blame
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