France fears ‘war’ as Russia recognises Georgian regions

Dmitry_Medvedev_04.jpg

Western leaders reacted angrily after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ignored their pleas and signed a decree recognising the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – a move condemned by the EU as a breach of international law.

While a defiant Medvedev said he was not frightened by the “prospect of a new Cold War” after his approval of the independence of the two separatist states, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner retorted in a television interview for France2: “If it is cold, it is not that worrying. We are afraid of a war.” 

Medvedev’s move surprised both Western politicians and commentators and was seen as a signal of Russia’s determination to reassert its authority around its borders. Major newspapers (Le Monde and La Croix in France, for instance) had predicted that Medvedev would not sign the decree because it was “in Russia’s interest to keep uncertainty” around the breakaway regions. Speaking just one day before Medvedev’s announcement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had also said she did not believe that the Russian President would approve the independence of the Georgian regions. 

While Western leaders condemned Russia’s move and US President George Bush urged Moscow to reconsider its “irresponsible decision”, Medvedev insisted the move was “based on international law,” invoking the Kosovo precedent as a complicating factor for other frozen conflicts. 

But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner accused Russia of obviously failing to accept the borders which it inherited from Gorbachev and Yeltsin and spoke of Western fears that Russian troops may carry out ethnic cleansing in the area. Talking over a map of Georgia, he said: “This is the map of Ossetia. This is a city named Akhlagori. They say that tonight Russian troops will carry out ethnic cleansing and push the Georgian population towards Georgia so that this piece of Ossetia be homogeneous.” 

Russian generals see Black Sea buildup 

In the meantime, Russian generals questioned the “extreme level” of NATO naval activity in the Black Sea. “We’re bewildered by the extreme level of activity of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea, which continue to increase their numbers,” General Anatoly Nogovitsyn told a briefing on the conflict. 

“Only yesterday I said there were nine NATO ships in the sea and by evening another frigate of the US navy passed through the Bosphorus Straits. We have also learnt that another eight warships from NATO states are expected shortly. They talk about planned exercises and you can probably find some legitimacy in that but […] it’s very hard to believe that all the visits so far have been bringing only humanitarian aid,” said Nogovitsyn. 

Russia freezes peacekeeping with NATO 

Russia has suspended all peacekeeping operations with NATO for at least six months, the Russian envoy to the military alliance said on Tuesday. 

“As the alliance’s leadership has ignored the important peacekeeping role of Russia in the Caucasus and South Ossetia, we believe it is expedient to suspend all peacekeeping operations between Russia and NATO for at least six months,” Dmitry Rogozin said. 

However, the diplomat stressed that Russia was not opting out of political dialogue with NATO. 

Preparing a difficult summit 

As the EU prepares for an extraordinary summit on September 1 over Georgia and Russia (EURACTIV 25/08/08), France, as the current EU presidency holder, was consulting its partners about adopting a declaration condemning Moscow’s actions. At the same time, EU countries said they were waiting for French leadership. 

“Germany is waiting for proposals from its French counterparts on how to proceed,” a German diplomat told EURACTIV. 

In the Czech Republic, which is due to take over the EU Presidency from France in January 2009, President Vaclav Klaus and the members of the Czech cabinet responsible for foreign policy have failed to reach agreement over their stance on the Russian-Georgian conflict, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told journalists. 

Klaus has often clashed with the Czech government on foreign policy issues in the past, and he was critical of the fact that his country recognised the independence of Kosovo earlier this year. 

However the Czech Government succeeded to adopt a strong-worded declaration, calling the recognition of the two separatists regions in Georgia by Russia “illegal” and that it “refuses it”. 

Carl Bildt, Swedish foreign minister and chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, strongly condemned the decision by President Medvedev to recognise the independence of the two Georgian regions of South-Ossetia and Abkhazia. "This decision seriously jeopardises the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the conflict in line with the principles of international law. It blatantly contradicts the fundamental principles of the Council of Europe and the commitments taken by the Russian Federation towards the Council of Europe, as well as the repeated assurances given by the Russian authorities in favour of the full respect of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia," Bildt said in a written statement. 

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the West had made a "mistake" by humiliating Russia over ten years (from 1991 to 2000), asking Moscow to be "a supplier of energy and welcome our investments" without being given a "political role" in return. "Russia has nourished a frustration which today exploded," Frattini said. 

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs, says Russia and the West speak different languages. "We have seen a dramatic conflict of perceptions, one that has proven far deeper than the disagreements that had arisen earlier between Moscow and the West. Russia - not only its leadership, but the public as well - believes its actions are 100 percent justified both politically and morally. Moscow is completely confident it is right and that it had no other course of action." 

Lukyanov adds that Russia is now inclined "not only to reject completely a path determined by Western values, but actually to deny that such values even exist". 

French political scientist Bernard-Henry Levy was very critical of Russia in an article published in the Wall Street Journal. "Russia has no shame when it comes to twisting principles and ideals," he writes. He continues: "It brandishes the 'precedent' of Kosovo as if there could be anything in common between the case of a Serbian province hounded, battered and broken by ethnic purification which lasted for decades, and the situation of Ossetia, victim of a 'genocide' that, according to the latest news (a report by Human Rights Watch) consists of 47 deaths. And look how they turn to their profit - as well as that of the same Russian-speaking minorities they want to bring back into the bosom of the Empire - the argument of the 'duty to intervene' that might justify the exactions, in Gori and elsewhere, of the Russian army and its militias. This is a fine, grand principle dear to the French foreign minister and a few others. How daring! Well, Mr. Putin dared, Mr. Putin thought about it and did it." 

Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institute  and former US Deputy Secretary of State, says in an interview that he does not believe the West made a mistake by denying Georgia and Ukraine NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs) last April. "I do not think it would have changed anything. Remember that in Bucharest Georgia and Ukraine got something that was in a way more concrete than a MAP. They got a statement from the alliance that both countries would be members of NATO one day, which is more than a MAP says," Talbot stated. 

On 7 August, Georgian troops invaded the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which is – like the other disputed province of Abkhazia - officially part of the territory of Georgia, but in fact autonomous and largely under Russian influence. 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. According to Russian officials, about 2,000 civilians have died in South Ossetia. Both sides accused each other of genocide. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, helped broker a cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia, in which Russia agreed to withdraw all its troops to their pre-war positions by 22 August. On 25 August, Russia announced that its withdrawal was complete, but the West kept pressuring Moscow for a full withdrawal. 

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe