Way back in the day, quite a few countries throughout the world used to practice various blood sports. And no, I'm not talking football or even rugby. I'm talking about animal blood sports.
One of the very popular animal sports was the practice of bear baiting. A tethered bear in a pit would be set upon by a pack of hunting dogs (mastiffs or pit bulls or some equally large and nasty breed - you didn't see dachshunds in the pit). As the dogs attempted to bring down and kill the bear, the bear would do its best to defend itself by injuring or killing the dogs.
The sport attracted a lot of people and the betting on it was fierce and very lucrative. Henry VIII fancied it, and even his youngest daughter Elizabeth I would attend a bear baiting every now and then.
So what does this have to do with anything?
The Bear is also the traditional animal symbol for Russia (which is odd, as the old Imperial symbol was the two-headed Byzantine eagle, and said eagle has reappeared on the state coat of arms).
And we (the United States and NATO) are baiting the bear.
The Russian people have a couple of character traits that make them a wee bit touchy whenever another power starts drawing its sphere of influence's boundaries too closely. This is usually regarded as paranoia, but let's face facts - if your country had been invaded by everyone from Huns and Mongols to French and Germans over the centuries, you'd get a little edgy too.
Since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in the late 80s and early 90s and the dissociation of the Soviet Union, Russia has seen NATO drawing ever more eastward until its member countries either touch Russian borders or are very close to it. Georgia's abortive membership in the North Atlantic Alliance was the last straw, and all it took was a spark to induce the Russian Federation to draw a line in the sand.
A spark that Georgia's President was all too happy to provide, sending Georgian troops into South Ossetia.
The response was swift and overwhelming (the Russians have never been known for either a feline touch or for doing things by halves), and the Russian Army now sits about 40 miles away from the Georgian capital. Georgia's military, trained by Ukraine and equipped by the United States, was routed and now the Russians are gleefully confiscating US-made Humvees. President Saakashvili's overheated rhetoric notwithstanding, I seriously doubt that we'll be coming to Georgia's aid militarily.
NATO membership would be off the table as well, if it weren't for the US and Germany (of all people) actively suggesting it. If Georgia becomes a full member of the Alliance, any Russian soldier who so much as sneezes on Georgian territory will activate the collective defense clause.
That clause is what has NATO troops fighting alongside us in Afghanistan, by the way - an attack on one is an attack on all.
Now we have just inked an agreement with Poland (a NATO member) to base Patriot interceptor missiles on Polish territory as part of an illusory "missile defense shield." The great flaw in this idea is that the missile has only a 45-mile range, and the missiles they're supposed be intercepting (Iranian, mind you) can't reach as far as Poland or Western Europe. The bigger flaw is that the Patriot isn't the most accurate beast in the thicket, and the best way to defeat it is to overwhelm it; i.e., throw a whole cloud of missiles at it - a few will get through regardless.
The Russians, understandably, are irritated. Poland has been part of the Russian sphere of influence since the First Partition back in the early 18th Century, and the only thing separating Poland from Russia now is Belarus (which is sympathetic to Moscow, not Warsaw). A Russian general has even intimated that Poland may come under attack so that Russia can get those missiles out of its front yard.
The neocons are loving this - they get their Cold War rhetoric back and denounce the Russians, even as the military-industrial complex the neocons actually serve begins salivating at the prospect of huge defense contracts.
But what happens if Russia calls the US bluff, and does attack Poland? Is NATO prepared to go to war as part of its collective defense policy over a few missile launchers that everyone already believes to be a deliberate provocation?
Or will it cause the Alliance to shatter?
Stay tuned, boys and girls. I'll order pizza and a pitcher of beer.