After Georgia, what future for NATO?
Russia's message – 'We're back and we're strong' – creates a new geopolitical dynamic in Eurasia for the Western alliance.
The Russian Army's foray into Georgia this month has had enormous international impact. But the actions of its conventional forces served more to send a message to the West than to pose any significant military challenge much past its borders.
The immediate crisis in Georgia appears to be over for now. But as the West assesses what is clearly a new geopolitical dynamic in Eurasia, there is recognition that while Russia's military may not be as formidable as it once was, NATO and other Western allies must adapt quickly to counter the threat it does pose to its immediate neighbors.
That will undoubtedly lead to a broader debate about the future of NATO, its membership roster, and the resources it will need to create a viable impediment to Russia's military, whatever Moscow's ambitions may be.
But for now, it seems obvious that Russia has used its forces to send a clear message that it won't be ignored.
Once all but indomitable, Russia's military had crumbled by the 1990s, marked by its dilapidated tanks, very low troop morale, and deflated defense spending.
Russia's move into South Ossetia, however, showed its military in a new light. While it may not be a military on the rise, Russia showed for the first time in years that its military could exceed the world's low expectations. Under President Vladimir Putin, ground force training doubled from 2002 to 2003, for example, according to GlobalSecurity.org, citing open sources.
"Russia desired to have the ability for its Navy and Air Force to operate globally, as evidenced in their joint exercises in the Indian and Pacific oceans in 2003," according to this analysis of the Russian military. In 2006, Russia spent about 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product on defense – comparable to many Western nations though far lower than the roughly 4 percent the US currently spends on defense and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet Russia's ability to do anything more than rough up its weakest neighbors remains in question.
"I don't lose a whole lot of sleep over their conventional capability," says Eugene Rumer, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington. Television news footage of Russian military operations seemed to show a "pretty undisciplined force," he says. "The fact that they went in and did what they did speaks that this is no longer the Russian military of the 1990s, but that is a pretty low standard," he says.
Part of the reason the Russian military appeared to exceed expectations is because the Georgian military response was widely seen as poor.
Despite being on a fast-track to NATO membership and the deployment of Georgian troops to Iraq, the Georgian military needs better resources if it is to hold the line against its massive neighbor.
Some would like to see it brought into NATO faster, while others say the recent events call for more circumspection to see if a country such as Georgia is worthy.
Meanwhile, experts such as Mr. Rumer and others believe the US and NATO must strengthen the military capabilities of not only Georgia, but of countries like Estonia and the Ukraine – places where Russia could again flex its resentments toward Western influence.
Poland last week agreed to allow the US to base a missile defense system there over the long objections of Russia, which sees it as a threat to its own security.
Antiair and antiarmor weaponry could go along way to helping those border nations and former republics of the Soviet Union defend themselves, agrees Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hawkish former national security adviser under President Carter who tangled with the Russians often.
"NATO needs to provide these guys weaponry," he says. At the same time as Western allies help NATO build its capacities there, it must push to isolate Russia, says Dr. Brzezinski, now affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"That will send the Russian political elite a message that they will have to think about it," he says.
NATO, now tied down by the flagging mission in Afghanistan, must have a new discussion about building up its conventional forces, say other analysts as this apparently new, competitive relationship between NATO and Russia reemerges.
Meanwhile, in the reaction that followed last week's events, some believe the world could be overinterpreting whatever strategic ambitions the Russians may or may not have beyond Georgia.
The US and its allies must be careful not to overreact. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for example, who cut his teeth as a US policymaker as a Sovietologist, was careful not to put a "military option" on the table when it came to responding to Russia's move into South Ossetia.
On ABC News's "This Week" Sunday, Mr. Gates dismissed Russia's vows to target Poland with military strikes over the missile defense agreement.
Meanwhile, some analysts believe the world needs more time before it can properly assess what Russia is thinking.
"We are now in a mood to generalize it into something larger and more strategic," says Mr. Lesser, who adds that this poses a risk if the world community overreacts to what may be nothing more than settling an old, regional score. "There is a certain danger that if you get this wrong, that it can indeed become something bigger."