Upon Barack Obama’s election, the Russians made threats to US allies over their acceptance of a US 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 anymore as 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 US 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 Russia’s local conventional military superiority and nuclear deterrent. Ultimately, if it came down to sacrificing US 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 reality souring on NATO membership and the tottering Ukrainian government can hardly push through Ukraine’s 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 US pushed the potentially hostile NATO alliance up to Russia’s borders, established bases in the former Soviet states of Central Asia to contain Russia and China, detached Kosovo from Russia’s Serbian ally, and rerouted energy pipelines around Russian territory. These aggressive actions in Russia’s sphere of influence humiliated Russia and have led to "in-your-hemisphere" Russian naval exercises with Venezuela and threats against US allies that will host US missile defenses on their territories.
Some US 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 US 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 Russia’s leaders to take a strong position vis-à-vis the United States.
Threats against allies accepting missile defense hardware and naval exercises in the US sphere of influence are Russia’s way of signaling that further NATO expansion to include Russia’s key neighbors will meet stiff resistance. The up-to-now oblivious US government needs to finally heed these warnings. More important, the incoming Obama administration and the US 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."