Foreign policy experts are still trying to parse Vladimir Putin's recent blast against the U.S., which he described as a brutish country that "has overstepped its national borders, in every area." But rather than asking what exactly motivated Putin to lash out at the United States in this way, the question we should be asking is: Why do remarks like these play so well in Russia today?
I've just returned from Moscow, and I can tell you what analysts there told me, what even Russian liberals reminded me of: NATO expansion. We need to stop kidding ourselves. After the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the Bush I and Clinton administrations decided to build a new security alliance - an expanded NATO - and told Russia it could not be a member.
And let's not forget that the Russia we told to stay out in the cold was the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and his liberal reformist colleagues. They warned us at the time that this would undercut them. But the Clinton folks told us: "Don't worry, Russia is weak; Yeltsin will swallow hard and accept NATO expansion. There will be no cost."
So, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were invited to join NATO in 1997, and Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia followed in 2002. Lately, there has been talk of Ukraine and Georgia also joining.
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I believe that one reason Putin, a former KGB officer and Cold Warrior, was able to come to power after Yeltsin was partly due to the negative vibes of NATO expansion. We told Russia: Swallow your pride, it's a new world. We get to have spheres of influence, and you don't - and ours will go right up to your front door.
But now that high oil and gas prices have made Russia powerful again - the gasman of Europe - Putin is shoving Russia's resurgent pride right back in our face. In effect, he is saying to America: "Oh, you talkin' to me? You thought you could tell me that the Cold War was over and that NATO expansion was not directed at Russia - but we couldn't be members anyway. Did you really think we were going to believe that? Well, now I'm talkin' to you. Get out of my face."
Putin was only slightly more diplomatic in his Munich remarks, where he said: "The process of NATO expansion has nothing to do with modernization of the alliance. We have the right to ask, 'Against whom is this expansion directed?' " We all know the answer: It's directed against Russia. OK, fine, we were ready to enrage Russia to expand NATO, but what have we gotten out of it? The Czech navy?
For those of us w ho opposed NATO expansion, the point was simple: There is no major geopolitical issue, especially one like Iran, that we can resolve without Russia's help. So why not behave in a way that maximizes Russia's willingness to work with us and strengthens its democrats, rather than expanding NATO to countries that can't help us and are not threatened anymore by Russia, and whose democracies are better secured by joining the European Union?
I'm not here to defend an iron-fisted autocrat like Putin. But history is prologue. The fact is, we helped to create a mood in Russia hospitable to a conservative Cold Warrior like Putin by forcing NATO on a liberal democrat like Yeltsin. It was a bad decision and one that keeps on giving. Just when we need to be getting Russia's help, we're getting its revenge.
Thomas L. Friedman can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.