Russia's Monroe Doctrine

Article excerpt

Cornered by NATO's expansion, Moscow reasserts its imperial ambitions

MOSCOW - BY PENTAGON STANDARDS, RUSSIA'S lightning summer 1 conflict with Georgia wasn't much of a war.

There was no forced "regime change" and no "shock and awe," merely a swift, armored thrust by Russia's Vladikavkaz-based 58th army that dispersed an ill-advised Georgian military assault on the Moscow-protected statelet of South Ossetia. And though the Russian air force took undisputed control of the skies and targeted some aspects of Georgia's infrastructure, there was no plan to systematically destroy it. The whole thing ended with an internationally brokered deal mat secured the Russian army's withdrawal to its pre-war positions and the insertion of European monitors to guarantee the peace.

But the Russian military's first foray beyond its borders since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 has triggered political shock waves beyond the region, and threatens to bring on a chill in East-West relations to rival the worst days of the Cold War.

After almost two decades of retreat from the former USSR's geopolitical positions, a resurgent, oil-rich Russia appears angry, resentful and unwilling to tolerate further expansion of NATO into its historic region.

That mood prefigures trouble ahead. Two ex-Soviet countries - Georgia and Ukraine - could join NATO's Membership Action Program as early as December. Though that's unlikely with many European states dubious, the Bush administration sent Vice President Dick Cheney to stiffen spines in the two NATO aspirant countries in early September.

"Russia's actions are an affront to civilized standards and are completely unacceptable," Cheney told journalists in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, without acknowledging that it was actually Georgia that opened hostilities by attacking South Ossetia, where 80 percent of the population carry Russian passports and are protected by Russian troops. "Brutality against a neighbor is simply the latest in a succession of troublesome and unhelpful actions by Russia," Cheney added.

The thin red line

The original Cold War began with a series of Communist-backed coups in Eastern European countries mat were occupied by the Red Army in World War II.

In 1948, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin launched a blockade to starve the Western allies out of their enclave in West Berlin. An American airlift broke the siege, followed by a series of dramatic measures, including the re-instatement of the draft by President Harry Truman. The next year, NATO was created to block further Soviet expansion.

Many Russian experts say things are like that today - only in reverse. The "color revolutions" in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine brought ardently pro-Western governments to power in countries mat have close historic ties with Russia. After a decade that has seen NATO absorb all the former USSR's Eastern European allies and the United States move to install strategic anti-missile weapons in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow has had enough.

Both Georgia and Ukraine have infuriated Russia by seeking a fast-track to NATO membership with the backing of the Bush administration. Though their applications were postponed at the alliance's Bucharest Summit in April, the issue is slated to reemerge at a review session in December.

"There is a red line, where Russia cannot accept further pressure on its borders in its traditional geopolitical arena," says Natalya Narochnitskaya, former deputy chair of the State Duma's foreign relations commission and now an executive of the Moscow-based Institute for Democracy and Cooperation. "Ukraine becoming part of a hostile military bloc, and seeing NATO bases sprout in Russia's historic heartland, is simply not something we can ever accept."

Many Russian experts insist that Moscow doesn't object to Ukraine's independence, but would prefer to see it pledge neutrality and become a buffer between East and West, akin to Finland during the Cold War. …