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.