With the the issue of expansion provoking new tensions, Russia and NATO now find themselves in much the same situation as they did in the 90s, when the Atlantic alliance started considering how to bring former Warsaw Pact members into its fold, and in 2004, when the Baltic states joined NATO.
In the days after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania officially joined NATO, four years ago this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow with the alliance's secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Putin was largely dismissive of the alliance's expansion efforts. "Life proves that this mechanical enlargement [of NATO] does not help us respond effectively to the main threats we face today," Putin said. "This expansion cannot and could not prevent the terror attacks in Madrid, nor help us resolve problems in the reconstruction of Afghanistan."
But Putin skirted around the reality of life that irked Moscow the most -- the Baltic states had successfully made the break from Russia's sphere of influence, despite the Kremlin's fierce objections.
Now the current efforts of post-Soviet countries Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO are again being met with staunch resistance from Russia. And Moscow's tactics appear to fit well with the pattern of opposition it employed before former Soviet satellite states in Central Europe (Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic) first made the jump to NATO in 1999, and in 2004, when NATO touched even closer to home by inviting the Baltics and other former communist states (Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria) to join.
A Foreign Policy 'Bluff'?
Andres Kasekamp, director of the Tallinn-based Estonian Foreign policy Institute, says Russia's reaction toward NATO's expansion in the Baltics "was very similar to the reaction we see today, when we are talking about extending the Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine."
"From our perspective, it seems like the same sort of bluff that they have been using in their foreign policy to scare off the West all the time," Kasekamp said. "This didn't fortunately work in the case of the Baltic States, but still works rather effectively with some of our Western European friends."
Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, for example, recently told the "Financial Times" that by extending membership offers to Ukraine or Georgia, NATO would cross a "red line" for Russia -- a turn of phrase similar to those used before the Baltic accession.
Kasekamp says Russia's aggressive rhetoric has remained the same, citing Moscow's references to "retargeting Russian missiles to the Baltic States; or remilitarizing Kaliningrad; beefing up the number of troops, or ripping up the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty -- which they now have done, of course."
The highly charged rhetoric subsided soon after the Baltic states formally joined NATO. But today's Russia may not repeat recent history. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal "Russia In Global Affairs," says Europe would be wrong to assume that Russia's bark is worse than its bite.
"I am aware that there is a certain viewpoint in Europe that says that, 'well, Russia was always against it. Russia was against Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Then it was against Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia'" joining NATO, Lukyanov said. "But in the end, it could not do anything, and was simply reconciling with the inevitable -- accepting the fact."
This time around, Lukyanov says, things might not be so straightforward.
Firstly, he says, Russia has strong cultural, linguistic, and ethnic ties with Ukraine -- much stronger than with any other country that has sought integration in NATO. On top of this, Russia and Ukraine still maintain military-technological cooperation that dates back to Soviet times. Therefore, Moscow perceives the prospect of Ukraine's incorporation in NATO as particularly painful.
A Stronger Russia
With regard to Georgia, Russia holds strong leverage in the form of the two breakaway republics that it backs, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Perhaps most importantly, Lukyanov notes, today's Russia contrasts sharply with the weakened state it found itself in in the 1990's. "In general, this is a difficult comparison, as the Russia of 1999, 2004, and 2008 are slightly different countries," he said. "Now Russia behaves differently, it has different potential, and, what's most important, the general [geopolitical] situation in the world, to put it mildly, is not the most positive one -- which is not because of Russia's politics."
Some Western European states appear reluctant to irritate a resurgent Russia. France and Germany, for example, have argued that the time is wrong to offer Kyiv or Tbilisi a Membership Action Plan -- a key step toward eventual NATO membership -- at the alliance's annual summit this week.
As Estonian analyst Kasekamp notes, both Russia and Western European powers are keenly aware of Russia's newfound leverage.
"Russia has been very fortunate with the high price of oil, and the fact that the United States and the Western Europeans, because of the Iraq was, have been split," Kasekamp said. "And the U.S. has been preoccupied with its mess in Iraq. So, in other words, that has given Russia room to maneuver, and to play a more important role on the world stage again."
However, Kasekamp sees little that Russia can, or will, do to stop sovereign states from joining NATO.
"We should not really be worried about them wanting to do anything dramatic, or drastic, because most of the Russian elite have bank accounts in the West, and are very interested in the affluent life which their oil and gas reserves provide them," he said. "So I don't think that Russia is actually interested in a new Cold War as such -- even though the rhetoric seems to be going in that direction."
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