Russia steps up its push; West faces tough choices

Posted in Europe , Russia , Asia , United States | 12-Aug-08 | Author: Helene Cooper| Source: International Herald Tribune

President George W. Bush, in the Rose Garden on Monday, said the conflict had "substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world."

WASHINGTON: The United States and its European allies face tough choices over how to push back against Russia's advance into Georgia.

They seem uncertain how to adjust to a new geopolitical game that threatens to undermine two decades of democratic gains in countries that were once part of the Soviet sphere.

President George W. Bush of the United States, little more than an hour after returning to Washington from the Olympic Games in Beijing, on Monday bluntly warned Russia that its military operations were damaging its reputation and were "unacceptable in the 21st century."

"Russia's actions this week have raised serious questions about its intent in Georgia and the region," he said. "These actions have substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world, and these actions jeopardize relations with the United States and Europe."

Administration officials said military options were almost certainly off the table, but the United States did airlift Georgian troops stationed in Iraq back home, answering a plea from the Georgian government and prompting a sharp response from Russia. Washington could also press to ostracize Moscow on the international stage, perhaps by kicking it out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.

Yet there was no immediate indication that Western powers could exercise much leverage over Russia if it chooses to ignore their warnings. The country is enjoying windfall profits from oil exports and seems determined to reassert influence over Georgia and Ukraine, while sending a clear signal to former satellite states that they should be wary of an overly cozy political and military alliance with the United States, analysts say. "If the United States and Europe don't stop Russia, I think this is the end of what we thought of as the post-Soviet era," said Sarah Mendelson, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

George Friedman, chief executive of Stratfor, a geopolitical risk analysis company, said, "The Russians feel they have been treated like dirt by the world for the last 20 years. Now, they're back."

Few foreign policy experts believe that Russia can ever recapture its days of Communist glory, global intimidation and military might; the world has changed and growing global powers like China and India will make a return to the cold war impossible.

But there is a growing belief in European capitals and in Washington that the return of Russia could mean a distinct redrawing of the Eurasia map, with Europe and the United States giving up on attempts to integrate former Soviet republics in the Caucasus, like Ukraine and Georgia, into the Western orbit, while battling with Russia to keep Eastern European countries like Poland and the Baltic states.

And the return of Russia could mean an end to already-dwindling American and European hopes of bringing Russia along eventually as an ally of the West. At best, Russia would never be trusted; at worst, it would be seen as an adversary.

Even for an emboldened Moscow, the Russian foray into Georgia carries substantial risks: not just global isolation from the Western democracies, but also anger from neighboring states of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the prospect of perpetual military quagmires around its borders, if not on the catastrophic scale of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and nationalist reprisals like those that resulted from its crackdown in Chechnya.

A crowd of more than 1,000 people demonstrated in the Latvian capital, Riga, on Monday, while hundreds more gathered in Tallinn, Estonia, and Vilnius, Lithuania, to press the West to adopt a tough stance toward Moscow. Leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic echoed that call.

Even as American and European leaders were demanding, begging and pleading on Monday with Russia to halt its advance into Georgia ? foreign ministers from the world's richest countries held an emergency conference call and notably excluded Russia's foreign minister by limiting the group to the G-7, instead of the G-8 ? diplomats were going through what one Bush administration official described as "not exactly the greatest hand of cards to have to play."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a mid-level State Department official, Matt Bryza, to the region to back up mediation efforts which are being led by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France. Georgian officials urged their European counterparts to take more punitive steps, like ending plans to pursue a new strategic partnership with Moscow, and questioning the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

The games in Sochi are a personal project for Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, who favors Sochi as a summer and winter retreat, and skis in nearby mountains, close to the border with disputed Abkhazia.

But Democratic critics of the Bush administration criticized the administration's moves so far as weak. Richard Holbrooke, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations, noted that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was leading the efforts to mediate.

Rice, Holbrooke said, should be on a plane to Moscow, particularly given the administration's close ties to Georgia, and its encouragement of that country's efforts to join NATO.

"Their idea of an envoy is Matt Bryza, who is not an envoy at all since he doesn't have the international standing," Holbrooke said. "What administration in history would not have sent somebody to Moscow immediately? Why are we not in their face?"

Of course, many foreign policy experts say that part of the reason why Russia responded so forcefully to Georgia's attempt to take back South Ossetia is because the United States and Europe had been asserting themselves in Russia's backyard, alienating Moscow by supporting Kosovo's bid for independence, a move which Holbrooke supported as well.

Beyond that, Russia has also been angry about American plans to put a missile defense system in Poland, and by American moves to encourage Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. "The combination is that the overall means with which we've dealt with the Russians over the last two years have painted them into a corner so that it's difficult for them not to see us as hostile," said Michael Greig, conflict management specialist at the University of North Texas.

But the problem has become the response: Russia has now pushed back hard, and the United States, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and fretting about Iran, is unlikely to take on Russia over the matter of Georgia. Russia has shown that it wants to rule its own backyard, said Friedman of Stratfor.

"All this basically means that Russia emerges as a great power," Friedman said. "Not a global power like it used to be, but a power that has to be taken very seriously."