The conflict raging in the former Soviet republic of Georgia illustrates both the advantages and perils of NATO's expansion to the borders of an increasingly powerful and brazen Russia.
If Georgia were now part of NATO — it hopes to join, but hasn't yet — the odds are good that Russia would have showed restraint in dealing with a member of a strong military alliance.
Yet one reason Russia has become more aggressive in recent years is that NATO already has expanded far beyond the North Atlantic region to include Poland and other countries once in the Russian sphere of influence. While most experts say NATO poses no military threat to Russia, the expansion has been a useful tool for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to rally nationalist sentiment and taunt the West.
"NATO has extended right up to the border in so many places that it's obviously something Russian leaders have used to keep Russia whole and Russians motivated,'' says Stanley Sloan, founder of the Atlantic Community Initiative.
"This is what we should have expected — a return to a more authoritarian style of government — but that doesn't mean we should excuse what's been called a disproportionate reaction to the situation in Georgia.''
Russia is not totally to blame for the current crisis, which began when Georgian forces tried to seize the pro-Russian area of South Ossetia, killing or injuring hundreds of civilians. Defying international criticism, Russia has sent troops into Georgian territory, blockaded the Georgian coast, bombed cities and sparked fears that it is trying to oust the country's pro-Western, democratically elected government.
The unresolved ethnic tensions in South Ossetia and another pro-Russian region, Abkhazia, are among the main reasons NATO voted in April against inviting Georgia to immediately start the membership process. Although President Bush wants Georgia to join, France and Germany argued that an invitation would anger Russia, whose help the West needs in dealing with Iran's nuclear threat.
If it already belonged to NATO, Georgia could invoke Article 5 of the organization's treaty, which says "an armed attack against one member shall be considered an attack on all.'' That doesn't mean the United States and the other 25 NATO members would automatically go to war with Russia; Article 5 only requires members to consult on what action to take.
But even the possibility of a NATO military response likely would have deterred Russia from such a heavy-handed response.
"It's like a schoolyard bully,'' says Gary Schmitt, an expert on NATO at the American Enterprise Institute. "If he wants to pick on a skinny little kid, it won't be a skinny little kid with a big brother to push back."
A close U.S. ally, Georgia has appealed directly to President Bush for help but has been rebuffed except for the decision to let 2,000 Georgian troops in Iraq return home to fight the Russians. The lack of Western military support for a small, struggling democratic nation is angering Georgians and also causing concern in Ukraine, another former Soviet bloc nation that hopes to join NATO.
Ukraine does not have the same kind of ethnic problems that are causing Georgia so much trouble, but Russia considers it part of Russian territory and covets a major Ukrainian naval base on the Black Sea.
Putin once commented to Bush "that Ukraine is not a real country, so the concern of course is that if the West is not very strong about Georgia, Ukraine could well be next,'' Schmitt says.
For both countries, it will be December before NATO decides whether to let them start the process of joining — and it could be another few years before they officially join. Among other issues, applicants must resolve internal problems and disputes with neighboring states — a tough requirement in Georgia's case.
"You could say on both these grounds Georgia doesn't qualify because of the situation in South Ossetia, but it's Russia that's creating conditions to block membership,'' Sloan says.
And there's no reason to think Russia will stop.
"Russia does feel threatened'' by NATO, Schmitt says, "because having democracies on its border puts a challenge to an increasingly autocratic Russia. It's not NATO as a military organization, but as a political democratic organization that Russia finds problematic.''