"Where are we now in our relations with Russia? We are in a bad place," observed Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy, and Director of the American Foreign Policy Program, Johns Hopkins University, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at a 17 October 2008 Kennan Institute briefing. "Relations are worse, and more dangerous, than at any time since the beginning of the 1980s."

The August war in Georgia symbolizes the growing rift between Russia and the West, Mandelbaum said. Both sides share a view of the war as a wanton act of aggression against a small nation. In Russian eyes, Mandelbaum stated, Georgia attacked tiny South Ossetia and Russia came to the rescue. Americans view the events of August 7, he continued, "as a bullying Russian attack on a smaller, weaker, and, unlike Russia itself, democratic neighbor." Neither account, Mandelbaum stressed, fully accords with reality. Mandelbaum pointed out that Russia's concern for the rights of ethnic, national, and religious minorities did not extend to previous attacks on Georgian civilians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, let alone to the Chechens. The American account paints Georgia as a democracy, when in fact its press is severely curtailed by the Georgian government. As for the fighting itself, Mandelbaum noted, "the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that it was Georgia, not Russia, that struck first, by launching an attack on South Ossetia."

Both American presidential candidates have expressed their support for admitting both Georgia and Ukraine into the NATO alliance. The Russian government has made clear that it considers both initiatives to be entirely unacceptable. Western European members of the alliance, particularly France and Germany, did not agree to offer membership earlier in the year, and would surely veto the idea now, Mandelbaum said. The United States could offer a unilateral security guarantee as it now does to South Korea, but that would entail stationing troops in the two countries. Especially dire consequences would ensue in the case of Ukraine, Mandelbaum predicted. Not only would this likely revive the standoff of the Cold War, the U.S. military is over-extended and U.S. popular support is uncertain. In short, he said, we are stuck with no good options: extending NATO membership would provoke confrontation, and backing away would amount to a political defeat for the United States.

Russia, governed by elites buoyed by oil revenues and more confrontational abroad, bears a major share of the responsibility for the deterioration of relations with the West. It does not bear all of the responsibility, Mandelbaum argued. The decision in the mid-1990s to expand NATO to include countries formerly under communist rule has had "three poisonous effects on relations with Russia, which have become more toxic over time." The first of these was that the policy broke the promise of Western leaders during the Cold War not to expand the alliance, which created doubt in the minds of Russians about the trustworthiness of the West. The second, according to Mandelbaum, was the bad faith in which the expansion proceeded. Rationales for extending membership swayed from rewarding nations for becoming democracies to a means of democracy promotion. The constant was that Russians were told that they would not be invited to join, which convinced them that expansion was aimed at them. Finally, Mandelbaum said, the expansion reinforced "one of the oldest rules of geopolitics…the strong do what they will, while the weak do what they must."

NATO's Balkan Wars of the 1990s reinforced the third point, Mandelbaum contended. Over Russian objections and without United Nations or even congressional approval, the United States twice attacked the Balkan nation with the closest ties to Russia: Serbia. The Russian government would later act on that same precept in Georgia.

NATO expansion has been a failure, Mandelbaum declared. It has diverted us from the common security order in Europe following the Cold War that focused on configuring armed forces for defending territory, on military transparency measures, and a commitment to resolve problems in a cooperative fashion. Mandelbaum urged a return to this approach.

"To end Russia's estrangement from the West, and to recreate the lost common security order in Europe, NATO must eventually either include Russia or give way to a new and more inclusive security order," Mandelbaum concluded. "This is sensible from the Western point of view as well, for there can be no serious, effective European security order that excludes Russia." To achieve this goal, the West, and particularly the United States, must renew its commitment to such a system. It also requires political change in Russia, which is not likely to happen soon. Yet the global economy may have influence where the West lacks leverage. Declining oil and Russian stock prices, Mandelbaum pointed out, has "the useful effect of undercutting the central premise of the present regime, namely that the country can have both its current brand of political authoritarianism and economic prosperity."

For the complete text of Professor Mandelbaum's remarks, click here.