The epitaph for NATO has been written many times before, but the Russian invasion of Georgia may have presented the Atlantic Alliance with its biggest geopolitical challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In one fell swoop, Moscow's show of political and military muscle in the Caucasus earlier this month has called into question the security bloc's main post-Cold War raison d'etre: eastward expansion.
It's useful to remember that, with the end of the Cold War more than a decade-and-a-half ago, NATO planners made expanding the European "zone of prosperity" their overriding priority. They did so by crafting an elaborate pathway-to-membership program - Partnership for Peace (PfP) - and beginning accession talks with a number of former Soviet satellites. These moves obviously unsettled Russia, and NATO's response was the creation in 1997 of a new consultative mechanism, the Russia-NATO Council.
The resulting status quo held for a time. But the Alliance's push east has accelerated in recent years, fanning Russian fears of Western encirclement in the process. Since 1999, NATO's ranks have swelled by more than a third, and there is no end in sight. At its June 2004 summit in Istanbul, the organization officially announced its ambition to become the guarantor of security for the Caspian and Caucasus.
But NATO planners must be rethinking this course of action at the moment. After all, until Russia's August offensive, Georgia itself was a serious contender for membership, with the Alliance's 2008 Bucharest communiqué explicitly stated that Georgia and Ukraine "will become members of NATO." In a sense, therefore, NATO dodged a major bullet. Had Georgia already been a member, Russia perhaps would have been deterred from attacking. But if it wasn't, the resulting hostilities would have embroiled NATO in its first military conflict with the Kremlin. And that realization is likely to make NATO downright cautious about accepting future members, despite the fact that more than a few countries - fearful of potential Russian aggression - are now beating down the Alliance's door.