Let no one be deceived: Putin has drawn a dangerous new line. Russian troops have trespassed into a sovereign nation for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But all such retributive Western campaigns are misguided and, like every attempt to twist Russian arms since the end of the U.S.S.R., sure to backfire.
There's really only one lever left: Invite Russia to join NATO.
This is not a new idea. Once upon a time, it was openly entertained in diplomatic circles East and West. In late 1991, the final days of the U.S.S.R,, Boris Yeltsin stunned a NATO meeting by sending a letter with this unilateral declaration: "Today we are raising a question of Russia's membership in NATO." "A long-term political aim," Yeltsin called it then, as he threw down the gauntlet before the West. NATO ministers, as Tom Friedman reported for the New York Times at the time, were "too taken aback ... to give any coherent response." In the ensuing years, as Yeltsin with characteristic bravura continued to raise the prospect, the West kept fumbling for a reply.
Even Putin, in his first days in the Kremlin, seized on the issue. In March 2000, in his first interview with a foreign reporter -- the BBC's David Frost -- Putin shocked critics and fans alike, saying, "We believe we can talk about more profound integration with NATO, but only if Russia is regarded as an equal partner." Asked outright if Russia could join NATO, Putin shot back: "I do not see why not." He also added a dark warning: Any NATO attempt to exclude Russia from the debate over the alliance's eastward expansion would only provoke "opposition."
Give him points for honesty.
The end of the U.S.S.R. opened an era of unprecedented promise. But while Russians openly yearned for closer ties, the West only pushed back -- expanding NATO into former Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet states. More recently, the U.S. has moved to station elements of a missile defense system, what Russians still call with dread "Star Wars," in Russia's backyard -- in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Meantime, successive U.S. administrations have steadily reduced U.S.-Russian relations to Washington's lowest common denominator: our need for non-Arab oil and our need for help in constraining two of Russia's closest diplomatic and trading partners, Iran and North Korea. When it came to the war in Iraq, we asked for Russia's support. But then we shut it out of all oil and reconstruction contracts.
Amid the talk now in vogue of a "new cold war," we are adrift in a sea of lost opportunities. This week, ominous reports have surfaced: that Vice President Dick Cheney's office has pushed for several months to increase military aid to Georgia -- in particular, the sale of hand-held antiaircraft weapons -- at a time when Russia has been flying Tu-95 Bear H bombers, capable of bearing cruise missiles, near the coast of Alaska.
Russia is moving to reestablish its hegemony over its neighbors, some will say. Yes, it is true. But that is all the more reason to engage, not to chastise. After all, where is America's leverage? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, we are told, interrupted her holiday and made more than 90 phone calls to try to mediate the crisis in Georgia. President Bush "demanded" that Russian troops leave. To what effect? Russia's tanks have rolled on.
But Americans should not fear Russian expansionism. The Russians are already here.
Only 10 years ago, Russia defaulted on $40 billion in bonds and cut its umbilical cord to the global capital markets. But today, Moscow, awash in oil money, is out to enhance Russian prowess on the global stage, not militarily but economically. It's not only estates in Aspen that the Russian oligarchs have scooped up. The list of Russian takeovers is long and growing. Ask the Wall Street bankers who have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in the last year alone. Ask the folks at Oregon Steel in Portland and Colorado, Rouge Steel in Detroit and Stillwater Mining in Montana -- their paychecks now come from Russian oligarchs.
At some point between Putin's last day as president and the announcement this year that Moscow leads the world in billionaires, a new strategy emerged. "The Kremlin plan," the oligarchs call it. Go forth and multiply, Putin told Russia's business titans. His puppet president, Dmitri Medvedev, in his first meeting before the oligarchs last spring, laid out the terms of the bargain: Keep one foot in the motherland but expand your portfolios and, above all, extend Russia's reach abroad.
What does Russia want? Just a couple of tiny restive provinces pried away from Georgia? Hardly.
In Putin's Russia, muscle -- be it tanks or banks -- rules. Gazprom, the state giant that controls at least 25% of Europe's natural gas supply, hungers to enter the U.S. market. So do a raft of Russian oil giants and those who control the country's sovereign wealth funds, flush with at least $157 billion in oil money. What should the West do? Many in Washington and on Wall Street will whisper the obvious reply: Bring them in. "If our goal all these years, since the Soviet breakup, has been 'Get them to play by our rules,' " one former high-ranking national security aide in the Bush and Clinton administrations told me recently, "what better way to do it?"
So too on the diplomatic front. Now is the time, before the conflagration in the Caucasus spreads, to reverse course and embrace Russia more tightly than ever.
In 1991, when the world was giddy with expectation, a NATO foreign minister answered Yeltsin's talk of joining NATO with a fearful prediction. "If you do it for Russia," said the Belgian foreign minister, "you also have to do it for the other republics." How true. "For NATO," he added, "there is a danger of dilution." One need not look for long at the smoldering fires in Georgia to recognize our own myopia and to see where the greater danger lies.
Andrew Meier is a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and the author of the new book, "The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service."