BRUSSELS — What is the most important source of disagreement today between Russia and the West? It is not the issues most often in the news, Iran and Afghanistan. It is Europe’s contested neighborhood — the future of those countries between the eastern border of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union and the western border of Russia. While the West and Russia still talk the talk of cooperative security in Europe, geopolitical competition for influence has been renewed in these regions.

Russia today openly lays claim to a sphere of interest in its borderlands — in direct contradiction to commitments made under the Helsinki process. It has embraced policies and a military doctrine that labels NATO a threat and justifies the right to intervene in these countries. While packaged in smooth diplo-speak, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s new proposal for European security has the less-than-hidden goal of stopping and rolling back Western influence.

Rather than moving into the 21st century, Russia seems determined to revert to 19th-century strategic thinking. With the Obama administration focused on Afghanistan and Iran, the Kremlin hopes that a West in need of its cooperation will acquiesce in its demands.

And it is not only words. Eighteen months ago, a war took place in Europe between Russia and Georgia. It was a little war, but one that raised big questions. It was not fought over the future status of Georgia’s Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (though that was a real source of conflict). Instead, the war’s root cause was Georgia’s desire to align itself with the West and Russia’s determination to stop it.

Many diplomats would prefer to forget the Russo-Georgian war or sweep it under the rug. But none of the underlying tensions are resolved. There is no stable solution in sight for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has not abandoned the goal of breaking Georgia’s desire to go West. Instability and separatism are growing in the northern Caucasus, making the broader region more volatile.

In late January, the Obama administration issued its first unequivocal reaffirmation of the strategy of democratic enlargement that has guided Western thinking since the collapse of the Iron Curtain two decades ago. Speaking in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reminded us that NATO and EU enlargement created an unprecedented degree of stability and security in the eastern half of the continent, that Russia too had benefited from this stability, and that it was critical that Europe’s doors remain open to further enlargement.

Clinton went on to reject as unnecessary Medvedev’s call to re-make current European security arrangements. NATO has also finally started engaging in defense planning and other forms of strategic reassurance for its allies in Central and Eastern Europe, which are unsettled by Russia’s new assertiveness.

But what about those countries in between — countries like Ukraine and Georgia and the southern Caucasus? Ukraine just elected President Viktor Yanukovych, who is unlikely to pursue a NATO integration agenda, and if follows through on his commitment to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, membership in the EU would be precluded. But that does not mean that tensions with Russia will disappear.

Yanukovych’s victory notwithstanding, Ukraine is a country that is becoming more European and gradually moving out of Russia’s orbit in its own chaotic way. Regardless of whether Georgians like or dislike Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli, they want to go West, too. So Russia’s attempts to bring these countries to heel are likely to continue and remain a bone of contention and conflict.

And what is Western policy? In reality, the West today no longer has a grand strategy toward the East. The moral and strategic vision of the 1990s has exhausted itself and come to a grinding halt after the shock of the Russo-Georgian war and the recent Ukrainian election. As welcome as Clinton’s recent clear words were on the need to defend the right of countries to decide their own fate, you don’t have to go very far in Europe to hear whispers that some kind of new “Finlandization” might be a reasonable compromise for countries like Ukraine and Georgia.

It is time for the West to openly debate what its strategy is — and what it is not. Two decades ago, the West rejected “spheres of influence,” because Europe’s bloody history taught us that compelling nations to align themselves with others against their will was wrong and a recipe for future conflict.

If we still believe that today, we need an updated moral and strategic vision for such countries, and to back it up with a real strategy. We need to be clear that Moscow has a right to security, but that it does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, to topple their governments, or to deny them their own foreign-policy aspirations.

U.S. President Barack Obama is right to try to reset relations with the Kremlin and engage a revisionist Russia. But we need to do so knowing what our strategy is on this key issue. As the United States and Russia close in on a new arms-control treaty, it is time to face the question of how we deal with Europe’s contested neighborhood.

Ronald D. Asmus is executive director of the Trans-Atlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Brussels and author of “The Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West.” © 2010 Project Syndicate

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