(CNN) -- What do you do with an angry bear? Growl back at him, face him down or threaten to take away his honey? It is a debate the NATO countries are patently having trouble resolving.
Russian soliders on patrol outside the Georgian city of Gori on Monday.
The 26 member nations of NATO agree that the Russian invasion of Georgia in response to Tbilisi's military action in South Ossetia, whatever the provocation, seriously overstepped the mark. There is disquiet that Russia has been so slow to activate the cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently in the chair of the EU.
Sarkozy has promised "serious consequences" if Russia does not meet its promise to pull out its troops. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted "concrete measures" to punish Russia and insisted that the West must "deprive Russia of any strategic victory."
But the meeting of NATO's foreign ministers to discuss what to do about an increasingly assertive, not to say belligerent, Moscow has served only to demonstrate the inability of the alliance to come to firm conclusions and to take decisive action. What do you think about the relationship between Russia and NATO?
The NATO nations remain divided between those who ache to take a swipe at Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev and the pragmatists who say that NATO, the EU and the U.S. simply have to find a way of doing business with a new-style Russia that has not, as the West had hoped, come to share their values and which has been emboldened by its new energy riches to demand a controlling influence on the countries close to its borders.
It is notable that the toughest noises come from politicians not forced to grapple with the realities of office. If the new Russia is going to behave like the old Soviet Union, says U.S. presidential candidate John McCain, then there should be no room for it in G-8, where it already has a place, or in the World Trade Organization it would like to join.
The NATO club, says David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives in the UK, who rushed to Tbilisi for a supportive photo op, should speedily take Georgia into membership. The Baltic nations, including several former Warsaw Pact countries still fearful of re-absorption in some sort of recreated Soviet Union, line up with the U.S. in demanding tough measures against Moscow.
But from France and Italy and Germany, its coalition government split between left and right, comes a more cautious tone. "Keep open the channels for talks," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steenmeier said.
And that is not just because those three countries are heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies. Several other current members are wary of rushing into NATO, with its mutual assistance commitments, unsophisticated countries and leaders with their own impatient agendas.
Foreign ministers like the UK's David Miliband emerged from the Brussels meeting accentuating the positive. But there wasn't much of it to accentuate.
If NATO ministers could not agree that Russia should obey the cease-fire it had signed, that armed force was a bad way of resolving disputes and that Georgia's territorial integrity had to be respected, then there would have been little point in the organization's very existence.
But what sign was there of a slap over the wrist for Russia, let alone a "concrete step" that deprived Moscow of its easy-odds victory?
Although Britain is reckoned to side with the NATO hawks rather than the doves, Miliband too insisted: "I think it's important we don't pursue a policy of trying to isolate Russia." What was needed, he suggested, was "hard-headed engagement." As opposed, one presumes, to "soft-headed engagement?"
Of course NATO is insisting, as it must, that Russia cannot be allowed to wield a veto over membership of the Alliance or draw new dividing lines in Europe.
Creating a special consultative body to help Georgia prepare for NATO membership is a deliberate reinforcement of that message. But the conclusion of that membership process within the next four years is as likely as Rice winning the women's pole vault in the next Olympics.
If the toughest warning Europe can offer in the present situation is to threaten a meeting of EU heads of government to review relations with Russia, then Messrs. Putin and Medvedev will hardly be phoning their medics to ask for pills to help them get their beauty sleep.
In this phase the rhetoric on both sides scores maximum points for effort and very few for style of execution. But western ministers, it seems, have only just taken onboard how angry a resurgent Russia, traditionally fearful of encirclement, has been about the U.S. missile defense plan with installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, about the steady eastward march of NATO and the EU, and about the West's ready endorsement of Kosovo's breakaway from Russia's allies in Serbia.
If any of them still nurture any doubts, then they should read this week's article in the International Herald Tribune by Russia's NATO envoy Dimitri Rogozin.
We will have to wait for an international investigation to prove whether there is any reality in his figures, and respected observers are already challenging some of them. But Rogozin's contention is that Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili gave an order to wipe out Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.
"The Georgian air force and artillery struck the sleeping town at midnight. More than 1,500 civilians perished in the first hours of the shelling. At the same time Georgian special forces shot 10 Russian peacekeepers who didn't expect such a betrayal from their Georgian colleagues."
That, he says, was enough for Russia to take up arms in defense of its citizens. And the accusation of disproportionate force? No more relevant, he argues, than in the case of massive civilian losses at the hands of American soldiers in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq or Afghanistan.
There will be plenty who will accuse him of false parallels, but there is no doubting the force with which Rogozin argues: "Does that mean that the U.S. and NATO can use brute force when they want to, and Russia has to abstain from it, even if it has to look at thousands of its own citizens being shot?"
Justified or not, neither side has a monopoly of moral indignation in this conflict.
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