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Russia and NATO's identity question

Russia's invasion of Georgia raises new questions about the purpose of the West's alliance.

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Ever since the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, when NATO lost its enemy and its prime reason for being, the West's military alliance has been in existential limbo. Is its purpose to fight terrorism beyond Europe? Is its identity tied to adding new European countries? Now, with Russia's August invasion of Georgia, NATO's angst is escalating.

Until now, much of the internal wrangling in the alliance had been about "out-of-area" deployments. NATO belatedly intervened to stop atrocities as neighboring Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s. It meanwhile ventured into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda – but halfheartedly and ill-equipped.

Whether NATO is meant for a more global mission, and if so, whether it can gear up for it are basic questions expected to be the focus of the alliance's 60th anniversary summit next year.

But newer NATO members, such as the Baltic countries, are urging a renewed focus on the alliance's traditional mission: territorial defense.

Moscow's reversion to "sphere of influence" talk and action has awakened these countries' memories of suffocation in that sphere. They feel vulnerable sitting out there on Russia's western edge. They never were militarily fortified when they joined NATO; there was no imminent enemy.


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