WASHINGTON — For the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States is contemplating a Russia that has used military force against a neighbor and wondering what, if anything, it must do to counter it.
In a world where U.S. military strategy has been focused since 9/11 on fighting terrorist groups and foreign insurgencies, the sudden Russian move into Georgia raises troubling questions for military thinkers, many of whom had hoped that tensions with Russia were a thing of the distant past.
The decision to include in a missile-defense treaty with Poland Patriot missiles and other weapons that would be most useful in a fight with Russia, is one aspect of this new thinking.
But it is also symptomatic of how unprepared — or unwilling — the U.S. is to return to those days when, for 45 years, America was obsessed with the idea that the next conflict would be in central Europe.
The deal, signed Wednesday in Warsaw by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, calls for the placement of 10 U.S. interceptor missiles just 115 miles from Russia's western-most frontier. In addition, the U.S. would establish an American military base to support the Patriots, which can shoot down short range missiles.
But few analysts saw that as a real reaction to Russian aggression. Instead they portrayed it as an effort to dress up an agreement to make it look like a response to events in Georgia.
"It's a baby step," said Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow for Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who is skeptical that the Russian move into Georgia portends a newly aggressive military posture from Moscow.
"At this point, it's not about a Russia that is bent on an imperial conquest," he said.
Pentagon officials have made it clear that they don't want a return to the days of the Cold War. They've resisted White House calls to send naval forces to the Black Sea in response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia and have opted instead for a once a day flight of humanitarian aid to the Georgian capital.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former CIA Soviet expert, noted that the United States has tried to keep the rhetoric low for months, even after then Russian President Vladimir Putin at an annual security conference in Germany last year accused the United States of seeking to expand NATO to isolate Russia.
Actions that at one time would have been seen as provocative, such as Russia's renewal last year of flights by strategic bombers off the U.S. coast, drew little official response until this week, when Rice referred to them as "dangerous." "I think frankly we have been pretty restrained in this," Gates said, "and I would say, beginning with my remarks at the Vercunda Conference a year ago February where now-Prime Minister Putin's speech was regarded by virtually everyone there as very aggressive, and we have tried not to respond in that manner." With the U.S. military tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan and its training and procurement emphasis now shifted to counterinsurgency, not conventional warfare, it’s easy to understand why.
During the Cold War, the U.S. military included 20 divisions poised to respond to a Soviet move; during the Clinton administration, the number of divisions was cut to 10. The military now has only one stationary division in the world, in South Korea. The rest are rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But as Russian troops entered Georgia and humiliated its beleaguered army, U.S. officials felt pressure to reassure its NATO allies that Russia would not be allowed to enter Poland, Ukraine and other nearby countries.
That led the U.S. to cave on its long resistance to Polish requests for Patriot missiles as part of its agreement to host interceptors to defend against a potential Iranian nuclear threat, which some experts believe could come as early as 2012.
The Poles wanted the Patriots to protect it against a possible Russian threat.
Fritz Ermarth, who was a Soviet expert for President Reagan, said the Polish agreement might have some practical effect. "In diplomatic parlance, this is not 'directed against' Russia; it is a part of the ballistic missile defense capability intended to combat small scale missile attack by rogue states, mainly Iran. That’s been the aim and policy of the U.S. and its allies for years," he said.
"But in political parlance, it is clearly a response to and a rebuff to Russian aggressiveness in the Caucasus. It negates some Russian options for intimidation." Still, most analysts saw the Patriot system as "symbolic." It certainly wouldn't thwart an attack on Poland by Russia, said Stephen Flanagan, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Which leaves some at the Pentagon fretting that since Iraq, the U.S. has focused too much of its training on counterinsurgency and is now caught off guard by allies that need more conventional help.
The military, which spent years studying every aspect of the Soviet Army, has spent most of the last five years on counterinsurgency, moving some troops over the testing and into classrooms that teach Arabic and cultural awareness.
"Have we gone too far the other way?" one military commander asked this week.
Last month, the Pentagon officially called the war on terrorism its priority and suggested that it had already mastered conventional warfare.
"We must display a mastery of irregular warfare comparable to that which we possess in conventional combat," Gates said then.
Most Pentagon officials in the past week have been unwilling to say the U.S. must change direction again.
Kupchan says he's betting the change isn't necessary.
The U.S. agreed to put Patriot missiles in Poland "because it needed to send a message," Kupchan said.
"Are NATO war planners again burning the midnight oil to draft plans for a potential conflict against Russia? My guess is no," he said. "Russia will not continue down this road."