They agreed that NATO members "cannot continue business as usual" with Russia and demanded that Moscow withdraw its troops from Georgia immediately. This was perhaps the least NATO could do. But there will be no sanctions, no severing of communications with Moscow, no timetable of NATO membership for Georgia and no suspension of the NATO-Russian Council.
Georgia has not been entirely abandoned. There will be humanitarian aid, a new NATO-Georgia commission to strengthen relations and some pious declarations of support about eventual membership, sometime. But with so many other issues on its plate, NATO is in neither mood nor adequate military shape for an open confrontation with the Kremlin.
NATO is already severely tested by the war in Afghanistan, where only the British, Dutch and Canadians are joining the Americans in doing much fighting (although the French lost a squad of 10 soldiers in an ambush east of Kabul Monday). Some key NATO members, led by Germany, are deeply nervous over their access to Russian oil and gas, and the Germans made it clear they want to keep lines of communication open to the Kremlin.
Even before the NATO meeting began, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said publicly that NATO should not suspend the NATO-Russia Council or try to expel Russia from the Group of Eight or keep it out of the World Trade Organization.
"We need open channels for talks," Steinmeier said, although Chancellor Angela Merkel confused the German stance when she said during a visit to Tbilisi over the weekend, "Georgia will become a member of NATO if it wants to -- and it does want to."
On the surface, NATO seemed split between the moderates (Germany, France, Italy and Spain) and the hard-liners, led by the Americans, the British and many of the ex-Soviet states in Eastern Europe, who see the Russian behavior as "aggression."
Countries like Poland and the Baltic states, with recent experience of living under the Kremlin's authority, see themselves as next in line for Russian pressure unless a firm stand is made now. The British have been warning about the capacity of Vladimir Putin's Russia for outrageous behavior since the murder in London two years ago of a Russian exile by radiation poisoning.
But the policy divisions are more complex than that. The British do not want to make matters worse for BP, the country's flagship energy giant, whose Russian joint venture looks like it is being looted by a curious combination of Russian oligarchs and state agencies.
The Bush administration has the toughest choices to make in juggling a number of different priorities. On the one hand, it wants to support the young democracy of Georgia and to make it clear to Russia that its bullying actions are intolerable. On the other hand, it needs Russian support for any effective diplomatic pressure against Iran to rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Which is more important and more urgent? Is it worth sacrificing Georgia to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? And are there any guarantees that Russia in its assertive new mood will prove a reliable partner against Iran, even if Georgia is abandoned?
The Bush administration faces a further dilemma. One of the main reasons for U.S. support of NATO membership for Georgia is that Georgia hosts the one oil pipeline to Baku and the wider Caspian basin that is not under Russian control. If Georgia is abandoned and Russia resumes effective control of this pipeline, Russia's capability to use its energy weapon becomes even stronger.
Moreover, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads for Warsaw Wednesday to sign an agreement under which 10 U.S. anti-missile missiles will be based in Poland, a move that Russia has described as a provocation designed to nullify Moscow's nuclear credibility. That is why Russia has threatened to aim its own nuclear missiles at Poland as a "legitimate target."
To that extent, critics of the Bush administration have a point when they say U.S. actions have provoked Russia into its grim new stance. But it is not much of a point. A puny force of 10 missiles is hardly sufficient to mount much of a threat to Russia's vast arsenal of strategic missiles and thus is clearly aimed more at deterring Iran than undermining the Kremlin's nuclear credibility.
Given all these competing interests, the strains of the Afghan war already testing the NATO alliance and the cunning way Russia has capitalized on these NATO divisions with promises to withdraw its troops, it is not surprising that the NATO response was so feeble.
"The Alliance is considering seriously the implications of Russia's actions for the NATO-Russia relationship," said the final agreed statement as delivered by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
"We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual," he went on. "The future of our relations with Russia will depend on the concrete actions Russia will take to abide by the words of President Dmitry Medvedev (on the peace plan), which is not happening at the moment."
The announced Russian withdrawal is also not happening at the moment, despite the televised departure of one tank column. But eyewitnesses reported Russian troops and tanks dug in around Gori, the nearest Georgian city to the disputed territory of South Ossetia, and anti-aircraft missiles being deployed. Russian patrols were reported within 30 miles of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.
The initiative remains with Moscow, which can reinforce or withdraw its troops at will, depending on whether it wants to crush Georgia's independence or simply to send a warning message. But the NATO response will hardly encourage the Russians to put down the sword and try diplomacy.