For the first time since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. is contemplating a Russia that has used military force against a neighbor and wondering what, if anything, it must do to counter that.
With U.S. military strategy focused on fighting terrorist groups and foreign insurgencies, Russia's move into Georgia raises questions for military thinkers who had hoped tensions with Russia were a thing of the distant past.
One aspect of this new thinking: the decision to include in a missile-defense treaty with Poland Patriot missiles and other weapons that would be useful in a fight with Russia.
Pentagon officials have made clear they don't want another Cold War. They've resisted White House calls to send naval forces to the Black Sea, opting instead for once-a-day flights of humanitarian aid to the Georgian capital.
During the Cold War, the U.S. military had 20 divisions poised to respond to a Soviet move. Under Clinton, the number was cut to 10. The military now has only one stationary division in the world, in South Korea. The rest rotate in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But now U.S. officials feel pressure to reassure NATO allies that Russia would not be allowed into Poland, Ukraine and other nearby nations. That led the U.S. to cave on its resistance to Polish requests for Patriot missiles as part of its deal to host interceptors to defend against an Iranian nuclear threat, which some believe could come as early as 2012.
The Poles wanted the Patriots to protect it against a possible Russian threat.
Which leaves some at the Pentagon fretting that 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.
Most Pentagon officials in the past week have been unwilling to say the U.S. must change direction again.
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow for Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is skeptical that the invasion portends a newly aggressive military posture from Moscow, 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. Russia will not continue down this road.”