So, what did Russia learn from all of these warnings and blustering. Apparently, not much. Despite the signing of a cease-fire, Russian armored vehicles were, as of Friday night in Georgia, moving towards the capital city of Tbilisi, seizing a village about 15 miles out of town. Russian troops also moved west through Georgia, to the town of Abasha, although they seem to have withdrawn. Most concerning, however, was Russia's reaction to the signing of a deal to place a ballistic missile defense system in Poland. A senior Russian defense official lashed out at the move, saying that "cannot go unpunished." This, of course, is of direct and immediate concern to the US. Not only is Poland a member of NATO, but the deal ties the US closer to Poland than ever before:
In exchange for providing the base, Poland would get what the two sides called “enhanced security cooperation,” notably a top-of-the-line Patriot air defense system that can shoot down shorter-range missiles or attacking fighters or bombers.
A senior Pentagon official described an unusual part of this quid pro quo: an American Patriot battery would be moved from Germany to Poland, where it would be operated by a crew of about 100 American military personnel members. The expenses would be shared by both nations. American troops would join the Polish military, at least temporarily, at the front lines — facing east toward Russia.
...the United States would be obliged to defend Poland in case of an attack with greater speed than required under NATO, of which Poland is a member.
Polish officials said the agreement would strengthen the mutual commitment of the United States to defend Poland, and vice versa. “Poland and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at some point later — it is no good when assistance comes to dead people,” the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, said on Polish television. “Poland wants to be in alliances where assistance comes in the very first hours of — knock on wood — any possible conflict.”
Would Russia really attack Poland if such an attack risks bringing NATO into the fight? If Russia does attack Poland, would the US go to war to defend its new ally, if that war was against a military power (fading though it is) like Russia?
Certainly, the failure of the West to come to Georgia's aid has emboldened Russia, as has the to-date unwillingness to set out any punishment. But Poland and Eastern Europe are a different story from Georgia. America's credibility, alliance structure, and policies of engagement and enlargement depend on the expansion of NATO and the US's ability to protect its allies. The US cannot fail to protect Poland, even if that means going to war with Russia. Such a war would, hopefully, remain limited (this isn't the Cold War, after all, and Russia doesn't see its interest or sphere of influence as global). But if Russia seeks such a war, it would be far too damaging to American long-term interests not to fight. Which means that the US must be willing to engage in high-stakes brinksmanship to ensure that such a war does not happen and that Russia knows that the US will go to war to defend its NATO ally.All of these events have the realists waving their "told you so" signs about the dangers of NATO expansion. For realists, the end of the Cold War signaled the end of NATO's relevance; it makes no sense, they argue, to antagonize Russia over Georgia, Ukraine, or Poland. Russia has a legitimate security concern in Eastern Europe, the US does not. Thus, NATO should not push towards Russia's western border.
As I have argued many many times on these pages, the US should not, and does not, understand its interests along the narrow lines outlined by realists. It's not all about power. The problems in Georgia do not represent a victory for realism; they do expose the difficulties in advancing an agenda of engagement and enlargement. If Georgia had been admitted into NATO, Russia's decision to invade would have been made in a very different strategic environment.
US hegemony and leadership has moved much of the world further away from war than it has ever been. But that program requires constant maintenance, and comes at a high cost. The US must not shirk its duty here. President Bush should immediately make it clear that Poland is a member of NATO, and that the US and all NATO members will, if need be, fulfill their obligations to Poland. Then, as soon as possible, a nominal number of US troops should be rushed to Poland, to make a credible demonstration of US will and intent. Russia clearly feels emboldened and empowered by the west's debacle in Georgia. But Russian interests must be put back in their place.