EU split ahead of NATO crisis meeting on Georgia

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Ahead of a NATO foreign ministers gathering in Brussels today (19 August), major differences have emerged regarding  positions among EU countries over how to deal with Russia over the Georgia crisis. While most of the eastern EU members want a tougher stance on Moscow, France and Germany appear to be more wary of harming ties with Russia.

As the 26 foreign ministers of the alliance prepare to meet in Brussels, Georgia and Russia have issued contradictory statements regarding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia’s heartland. The Russian Defence Ministry said the pullout had begun on Monday 18 August, as the Russian President had agreed. But officials in Tbilisi said there was no evidence that Russian troops were leaving Georgian territory, and foreign correspondents also reported few signs of a large-scale military withdrawal. Analysts predicted that Russia would drag its feet instead of withdrawing, putting economic and social pressure on Saakashvili, the Georgian president, who Moscow wants to dislodge. 

But the question of how to react and how Russia should be punished in the event of non-compliance – to be discussed at today’s NATO ministerial meeting – does not appear to be an easy decision. Hawkish voices in the US and some eastern European countries, especially Poland and the Baltic states, suggest that Russia would have been deterred from attacking Georgia had it and Ukraine been on track for NATO membership (EURACTIV 2/04/08). But France and Germany see things differently, considering that if Tbilisi had been set on the road to NATO membership at the Bucharest NATO summit last April, the alliance would have been obliged to take military action to back Georgia against Russia. 

Unlike the wars in former Yugoslavia, the US has maintained a low profile in this conflict and let France and Germany negotiate with Moscow and Tbilisi. US State Secretary Condoleezza Rice had put pressure on Saakashvili to sign the French-brokered ceasefire, telling him that the US had no additional leverage to pressurise Moscow. 

It is therefore difficult to assess in advance if calls from Poland and the Baltic States that Moscow should “face consequences” for its military action in Georgia would be backed by the US. Observers say ministers are likely to look at a range of joint military and other activities planned with Russia and could cancel some of them. 

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who made a surprise visit to Vladikavkaz, near the border with South Ossetia, on 18 August, said the West had to respect Russian power and denied that his country was occupying South Ossetia. "We do not want a deterioration of international relations; we want to be respected. We want our people, our values to be respected," he said. "We have always been a peace-loving state. There is practically not a single occasion in the history of the Russian or Soviet state where we initiated military actions," Medvedev said. 

The Georgian foreign ministry accused Russia of stalling and said its continued military operations there contravene the ceasefire agreement. "The Russian side is gravely violating the conditions provided for by the peace accord signed by the presidents of Georgia, France and the Russian Federation," said a spokesperson, quoted by AFP. The ministry cited new operations by Russia on Monday, including the re-occupation of a military base in Senaki in the west of the country, where explosions were heard. 

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on her way to the emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers, said Russia was playing a "very dangerous game and perhaps one the Russians want to reconsider". She added that the United States and its allies would not allow Russia to draw a "new line" through Europe and intimidate former Soviet republics and former satellite states. 

US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker said ahead of the alliance's ministerial meeting that his country would not call for dialogue with Russia in the NATO framework to be halted. "We don't want to destroy the NATO-Russia Council but Russia's actions have called into question the premise of the NATO-Russia relationship," he said. 

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, said on 18 August he hoped the "decisions by NATO will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [and which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era," AP reported. 

On 7 August, Georgian troops invaded the breakaway region of South Ossetia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are officially part of the territory of Georgia, but are in fact autonomous and largely under Russian influence. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are also referred to as "frozen conflict" zones. Tensions in both regions have been increasing since Kosovo declared independence last February. 

Russia responded with massive military action, invading part of Georgia and prompting fears in the West that it may seek to use the occasion to topple Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-Western Georgian president, and turn Georgia into a vassal state like during Soviet times. Up till now, Georgia has lost 197 soldiers in the recent fighting, while Russia has reported 74 dead. About 2,000 civilians died in South Ossetia, Russian officials have said. Both sides accused each other of genocide. 

Visiting Moscow and Tbilisi on 12 August, French President Nicolas Sarkozy helped broker a cease-fire agreement which both parties agreed to sign. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised his French colleague Nicolas Sarkozy that Russia would start withdrawing from the heart of Georgia on 18 August, but stopped short of saying when they will return to Russia. US officials said in the meantime that Russia has been moving short range SS-21 ballistic missiles into South Ossetia which are capable of reaching Tbilisi, adding to the tension (EURACTIV 18/08/08). 

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