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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO: A Red Herring

Only Russians can kill Russian reform, just as only Russians can build Russian democracy. This is worth keeping in mind as Moscow's elites ratchet up their campaign against NATO expansion, claiming that it -- and not the elites themselves -- would be responsible for a failure of Russia's experiment in liberalism.

Russians wonder, in tones of injured surprise, why the nations of Eastern and central Europe would want to join NATO's defensive alliance. Their puzzlement is either insincere or remarkably insensitive to history. Fifty years after World War II, neighboring countries still regard Japan and Germany with varying levels of caution, suspicion and resentment -- even though those former aggressors have established themselves during the past half century as peaceful almost to a fault. Russian tanks, by contrast, rumbled out of Poland and Hungary less than a decade ago -- no time at all in historical terms.

After World War II, moreover, U.S. victors purged the leaders of both defeated powers, imposing a new constitution in Japan and partially de-Nazifying Germany. Russia on the other hand may have lost the Cold War, but it has undergone no purge. Russian President Boris Yeltsin apologized early on for the misdeeds of Soviet occupiers, but there is no consensus in Moscow that the Soviet Union acted badly. The leader of Russia's parliamentary opposition, Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, still holds up that evil-empire-builder, Vladimir Lenin, as a hero.

It is Russia, in other words, and not the West, that has yet to decide what role it should play in Europe and the world. Much of the younger generation wants Russia to evolve as a "normal country'' -- a peaceful, prospering nation where they can make money and get on with their lives and not bother anyone else. But others, including many now in power, still mourn the demise of great-power status and look to traditional means of expansion and bullying to recapture it.

Russia's neighbors know this better than anyone else. Estonia, once again independent after 50 years inside the Soviet Union, has no territorial disputes with its giant neighbor, yet Russia refuses to sign a border treaty. The message: We don't accept you as a separate country. The same holds true in Ukraine. "I think Russia still has the stereotype of seeing Ukraine as its integral part, or at least part of its sphere of dominance,'' Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said last week.

When NATO's secretary general recently visited a few former Soviet republics including Georgia and Moldova, Russia's Foreign Ministry protested heatedly, as if those nations should -- as in Soviet days -- meet the world only through Moscow. When one chamber of Russia's parliament laid claim to Sevastopol, a city that happens to be located inside Ukraine, or when the government claimed the entire Caspian Sea, the message was the same.

Ilham Aliyev, son of Azerbaijan's strong-man ruler and a top executive of its state oil company, says that leaders in Russia "still see Azerbaijan as part of their territory. They cannot accept that we are independent and pursuing our own policy. ... Their policy is still expansionist. They want their colonies back.''

None of this means, as some Russophobes here would have it, that Russia is genetically or geographically destined to resume its imperialist ways. It means, rather, that the debate is unresolved, that peaceful and expansionist mind-sets coexist, that there is -- not surprisingly, given the upheavals of recent years -- considerable confusion in Russia about how the country should define itself.

Russian leaders point to this continuing debate as a reason for the West to go easy on them. In a recent interview with The Washington Post's Jim Hoagland and David Hoffman, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin acknowledged that Poland joining NATO wouldn't really threaten Russia. But Russian nationalists would attack the government for letting it happen, he said; he would have to build up the army in response to their attacks; economic reform would be undermined.

Chernomyrdin is right in one sense: The debate in Moscow has little to do with NATO and a lot to do with Russia choosing its own direction. Before NATO expansion came along, the nationalists had other issues -- U.S. oil companies' plot to turn Russia into a "raw-materials colony of the West,'' for example, or the West's conspiracy against Russia's Slavic brothers in Serbia -- and after the NATO issue subsides, they will find others.

Just as in China, if the West bases its policy on appeasing and mollifying the nationalist forces, those forces will only be strengthened. If Russian leaders win concessions by raising the nationalist specter, then naturally they will keep on doing so; they will feed that monster rather than seek to tame it. The West is right to reassure Russia that NATO is not an enemy, right to reshape NATO's mission and right to offer Moscow a relationship that will draw it in rather than push it away. But it does Russia no favor to suggest that it can veto the actions of any independent country, no matter how small.

The democrats in Russia already know this. They know that their best chance to regain influence in Eastern Europe or anywhere else is to democratize, open their economy and grow. Much of the fulminating now -- the threats to redeploy nuclear weapons, to form new military alliances and so on -- represents negotiating tactics. The danger is that Russia, with its weakened chief executive, won't be able to pull back from those threats to accept a bargain that could serve its interests as well as the West's. The West can help by offering a fair deal while refusing to pander. In the end, though, Russia will have to choose.

Fred Hiatt is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff, to which he contributed this comment.