West must stand up to Putin's challenge

This editorial appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In a word, Russia's bold military strikes against Georgia — and the lack of a clear strategic response by the United States and the rest of the world — are about impotence.

Vladimir Putin, clearly establishing himself as Russia's supreme puppet master, decided to prove the country's renewed vitality by taking out two decades' worth of post-Cold War frustration on Georgia. The U.S. and world response lacked the kind of multilateral vigor that the situation demands, although there have been signs that Putin and his lackey, President Dmitri Medvedev, were pulling back under terms of a cease-fire.

Even if the fighting ends and Russia withdraws from Georgia, the events of the past six days have shown the former Soviet Union is back and eager to assert itself, strengthened by an economic boom built on oil exports.

Putin is making clear Russia's unhappiness about America's close ties to Georgia and the Ukraine, especially its backing of NATO membership for the two countries, as well as its support for Kosovo's independence. Russia also feels threatened by U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in Poland.

Despite U.S. warnings not to provoke Russia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili overreached and sent troops into South Ossetia. He gave Putin an opportunity to send a signal that he no longer wants democracy in the neighborhood — with the cover that Russia is simply defending the rights of South Ossetia and another breakaway state, Abkhazia, to be independent.

With a military response off the table, the United States and its allies have appeared to be scrambling to find a strategy to deal with Georgia and a reawakened Russia. After almost 20 years of democratic progress in the former Soviet Union, the West underestimated Putin's resolve. It should do so no longer.

What Putin fears most is that Russia will become isolated and internationally irrelevant. And that fear gives the United States and Europe at least some degree of leverage. Russia wants and needs partnerships with the West, including membership in the World Trade Organization and even stronger business relationships with the European Union.

Even if the cease-fire holds, the United States and Europe should redouble efforts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and Russia's membership in the Group of Eight should be reconsidered. Once again, the United States will need to lead the effort and put pressure on several EU and NATO members that have offered only lukewarm criticism of Russia because of its role as a major energy supplier to Western Europe. That's a shortsighted and weak approach to a formidable threat to Europe's long-term stability.

The Russia of 2008 has shown that it is far from impotent. It remains to be seen whether the United States and its allies will be able to do the same.