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Russia backs the West into a corner

Tuesday 2 September 2008, by Amanda Akçakoca

With the decision of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has received a united condemnation from the West. But the West’s response will have held little surprise for Moscow.

Being a nation which plays out its foreign policy like a game of chess, Moscow will have weighed the impact of all their decisions since their invasion of Georgia and estimated the likely fallout very carefully. After Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the independence of Kosovo, the missile defense shield, the increased presence of the US in Russia’s backyard and NATO’s broken promises on further enlargement, Russia struck back. Moscow did not want to challenge NATO directly; rather, it chose to confront and defeat a nation that was increasingly aligned with the West and particularly with the US. Moscow has driven home the message that the balance of power in the region has shifted and that neither the US nor Europe is in a position to stop them.

While Georgia lies in tatters, other nations on Europe’s periphery feel increasingly nervous. Russia’s actions have demonstrated that all the promises and guarantees made by the US are useless. Russia is set to argue that it was left with little option than to recognize these two breakaway regions following claims of ethnic cleansing and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s alleged determination to annihilate South Ossetia. Moscow will probably use similar arguments to those used by the international community regarding Kosovo’s independence, although there are considerable differences between the two cases. This will be terrible news for the countries with similar breakaway regions (Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and Transnistria in Moldova), which might take similar steps and demand recognition from Moscow. It will also come as a massive blow to Ukraine, which has also been wooed by the US into dreams of NATO membership and integration with the West. Russia maintains its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol in Ukraine’s Crimea, which has a heavy Russian minority (to whom Russia has allegedly been giving passports), and which Russia continues to claim should never have been part of Ukraine. So far warnings from the West have been taken with a pinch of salt, and NATO’s decision to halt cooperation has roused little concern. Russia’s seat on the UN Security Council has prevented any action there. Even the battering to the Russian economy and the withdrawal of investments does not seem to be concerning them too much. The message is that the US and Europe need Russia more than Russia needs them. They need Russia’s help in sanctions against Iran, in the war against terrorism and in Afghanistan, in fighting drug trafficking, etc. Europe is also cautious due to its heavy dependence on Russian energy resources and increasingly worried about reported Russian arms sales to Hezbollah and possibly even to Iran and Syria.

George Bush will go down in history as the president with the record number of foreign policy calamities during his term in office. With more than 100 advisors on the ground in Georgia, it is shocking how badly the US misread and underestimated Russia. For the sake of the elections and McCain’s candidacy, the Republicans will now have to show the American people that Russia has not won, that the US is fighting back and will stand up to the aggressors. But realistically there is not much the US can do, given it is so heavily bogged down in the Middle East. It will probably just continue to pump Georgia full of money and fresh supplies of armaments and give a stronger push for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

On Sept. 1 the EU’s French presidency will hold an emergency Russia summit. What concrete action the EU can take remains to be seen. Options include freezing the EU-Russia partnership treaty and visa-free travel talks, exclusion of Russia from the G8 and the WTO and boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics. The outcome will probably be based on the “lowest common denominator,” as such is the split within EU member states on Russia. The French-German-Italian Russian friendly club will probably not support freezing talks. Sarkozy wants to deliver a success, but it is very difficult to see how he is going to do it. Although it is detrimental for Russia to isolate itself, the West itself cannot afford to isolate Russia, either. The West may say it is united, but it is a superficial unity. If NATO had not dithered on Georgia and Ukraine’s Membership Action Plans back in April, we may well have avoided the disaster we are facing with Russia today.

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Source : 27.08.2008, TDZ

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