Meanwhile, Russia continues to be marked by domestic authoritarianism and aggression beyond its borders. The harassment and murder of journalists and human rights advocates continues unabated. Press freedom has declined precipitously since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came to power 10 years ago. Baton-wielding riot police regularly break up peaceful demonstrations. A recently “leaked” Russian foreign policy document cites NATO enlargement – the consensual process by which sovereign states, once held captive behind the Iron Curtain, decide to join an alliance of free and democratic nations – as the greatest threat to Russian security, underscoring the paranoid mind-set that dominates Kremlin thinking. And nearly two years after its invasion of Georgia, Russia continues to occupy 20% of the country’s territory, has illegally recognized two separatist provinces as “independent” states and stands in violation of a European Union-brokered ceasefire. ~James Kirchick

No one denies the authoritarianism, but as Kirchick’s statements show the evidence for Russia’s “aggression beyond its borders” is very, very thin. When the one concrete example of “aggression” Kirchick can come up with is the Russian military presence in the separatist republics, we know we shouldn’t take the charge very seriously. Yes, officially these republics are still considered part of Georgia, and in a parallel universe where state sovereignty and territorial integrity are actually respected by major powers this would mean something. Which is more outrageous: a Russian military presence in territories whose inhabitants welcome them and do not want to be part of Georgia, or an American military presence in Iraq where a large percentage of the population does not want us to be there and never has? Hawks usually bristle at the word occupation when it is applied to Iraq or the Palestinian territories, but they throw it around quite freely when discussing a case that is much more ambiguous.

Was Russian recognition of the independence of the separatist republics illegal? Of course. So was the recognition of Kosovo independence by the U.S. and much of Europe. It is pretty widely accepted now that it was recognition of Kosovo independence that led to Russia’s recognition of the separatist republics. Western governments wanted to make Kosovo a “special” case, and Russia was going to make sure that it became a precedent that had unhappy consequences for a U.S. ally. Georgian escalation made it very easy for Moscow to do just that.

The main difference between the conflicts prior to recognition is that the U.S. and NATO launched the attack on Serbia that later led to this partition, while Russia was repelling an attack from Georgia against the statelets that had effectively broken away decades ago. It was the U.S. and NATO that launched an unprovoked war against a traditional Russian ally eleven years ago after assuring Russia that it had no reason to worry about eastward NATO expansion. It was also the U.S. and many of our NATO allies that arbitrarily partitioned that country’s territory two years ago with those recognitions of Kosovo independence. Perhaps it isn’t exactly paranoia to see an expanding NATO as some sort of threat to Russia and its allies.

Then again, maybe Moscow is mistaken to see NATO expansion as a major threat. As NATO has expanded, it has steadily gone from being what some of us used to call the greatest alliance in history to something more like a club for the politically correct. Belonging to it has had far less to do with collective defense against a foreign threat, which has steadily receded for the last twenty years, and more to do with burnishing the credentials of one’s country as a truly Western one. Certainly, many new and aspiring NATO members have contributed to the war in Afghanistan, and many have also inexplicably contributed to the war in Iraq, but for the most part these have been symbolic commitments that underscore just how militarily useless most of the new allies are. To the extent that NATO continues to have any real military function at all, it has been to serve as America’s posse in military campaigns that have nothing to do with the alliance’s reason for existing. What continues to amaze is not the limited support NATO allies are giving to the war in Afghanistan, but that they continue to provide any support when they no longer really have any obligation to do so. Meanwhile, it is exactly those countries where Western security guarantees are truly risky and dangerous that stood no chance of gaining entry, because Ukraine or Georgia in NATO might have eventually required NATO to fulfill its pledge to defend against an attack on any member, and no current member of NATO had any intention of doing that.