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By Greg Smith

“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” President Obama to Mitt Romney during 2012 presidential debate.

The idea the North Atlantic Treaty Organization lost its mission after the fall of the Soviet Union has been proven wrong by Russia’s Crimean annexation, but the fog of peace still hasn’t lifted for NATO members who became pre-occupied doing business with the 800-pound gorilla in the Kremlin. NATO’s mission will continue so long as Russia exists.

For 40 years NATO had a single mission: protect Western Europe from the Soviet threat of invasion. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 widespread belief was the threat from Russia had permanently disappeared. That sentiment was probably shared by the Golden Horde in the 1400s. You know, the Mongol empire long ago absorbed by its former vassal state, Russia.

Since the 1200s Russia can be compared to a glacier during a cooling period. It mainly increases in size, engorging and less often disgorging satellite nations and regions. Despite its size – in area Russia is almost twice the size of the second largest nation, Canada – Russia has viewed its neighbors with fear and suspicion, of course with some justification. Adding territory on its margin provided both a greater buffer and control of populations. Russian leaders have proven adept at bargain hunting, snapping up land when the price was right.

The lesson from history for NATO is simple: Make the price Russia pays to take over other countries too high. In the past three weeks there has been discussion of Russian views of Eastern and Central Europe as a sphere of influence, and that Western diplomatic efforts at closer ties with Ukraine, as well as NATO inching closer to Russian borders are cause for alarm in Moscow. Hogwash.

Given its size and resources Russia no longer has any excuse or justification for taking over territory for self defense. European countries have been disarming for decades. Even collectively and including Turkey they pose no real danger to Russia. The U.S. has continued to invest in modern equipment but mainly for unconventional war. The U.S. Army has actually requested production of its main battle tank – the one designed to shred Soviet tanks — be stopped.

Russia’s aggressive stance – particularly using shadowy, unmarked forces who appear more like Klansmen — against Ukraine shows it didn’t get the U.S. State Department’s memo ending 19th Century power politics. Western nations invite greater problems if they treat Russia like a wayward regional power, applying sanctions instead of putting military options on the table. Vladimir Putin may mean it when he says Russia has no designs on Ukraine or any other country, but effective diplomacy is about credible foreign policies that prevent these types of crises before they occur.

Acting as a bulwark against Russian expansion does not require a Cold War posture or attitude. In fact, a credible, sincere defense policy would prevent Russia from actively considering military measures, leaving dialogue as the preferred option. Crimea leaving Ukraine could have been dealt with diplomatically, but Russia chose not to go that route. Why not is the 64,000-ruble question.

So long as Russia exists, NATO will have three core missions: contain Russia, contain Russia, and contain Russia. Whether NATO chooses to fulfill its mission is less clear. ©

Greg Smith is a freelance writer and political consultant who lives in Bantam, CT. His blog is found at http://www.betterfatthanfascist.com.