Leaders try to stop Russia colliding with West

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US and EU leaders have warned Russia not to recognise the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and not to suspend its relations with NATO. But Russia remains defiant in the spiralling war of words following the conflict in Georgia.

US President George Bush, Geman Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders urged Russia not to recognise Georgia’s two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. 

The appeals came on Monday (25 August) after Russia’s Parliament passed a non-binding motion calling on President Dmitry Medvedev to support the enclaves’ independence bid (EURACTIV 25/08/08). 

“I expect that the Russian president won’t sign the resolution,” Merkel told a news conference in Stockholm, where she held talks with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Merkel, who is also due to visit Estonia and Lithuania, two countries which are among the most critical of Russia, added that signing the resolution would only add tension to an already critical situation. 

US President George Bush also said South Ossetia and Abkhazia should remain part of Georgia’s domain and the Russian leadership should “not recognise these separatist regions”. Bush said Georgia’s borders deserved the same respect as any country’s, including Russia’s. 

Russia ready to leave NATO formats 

But tensions grew still further following comments by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who said he was ready for any NATO sanctions, including the alliance opting to halt relations with Moscow altogether. 

“The [North Atlantic] alliance, not Russia, is the one more interested in our cooperation,” Medvedev said in the Black Sea resort city of Sotchi. “If they cease this cooperation, nothing terrible will happen to us. We’re prepared to make any decision, up to breaking relations [with NATO] completely.” 

Medvedev also criticised NATO for expanding nearer to Russian borders. Western observers believe that by its military incursion into Georgia, Russia is warning NATO not to expand further into its periphery. 

The UK government said it believes it would be wrong for all NATO-Russia contact to be suspended, despite widespread concern among the alliance about Russian military action in Georgia. 

“NATO-Russia relations will need to take fully into account the implications of Russian military actions in Georgia. However we believe it would be a mistake to suspend all NATO-Russia contacts when they are so much needed,” a spokesperson stated. 

EU summit in preparation 

On the eve of an extraordinary EU summit in Brussels on 1 September over Russia and Georgia (EURACTIV 25/08/08), the EU was careful not to convey the message that it was identifying ways to punish Moscow over its Georgia assault. 

Speaking on France Inter radio, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner says the EU does not envisage the introduction of sanctions against Russia. 

EU leaders are concerned that Moscow’s ultimate aim is to cripple Georgia’s economy and the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili. But another concern of many European leaders is that ever since the Georgia crisis started, Russia and the West are on a collision course which may have a long term negative effect on the international climate. 

Analysts conclude that there are not many effective levers the West can use to influence Moscow. In a similar vein, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, dismissed talk of excluding Russia from the G8, the WTO and the NATO-Russia Council as an “empty threat”. 

“For some time now, Russians have been wondering: if our opinion counts for nothing in those institutions, do we really need them? Just to sit at the nicely set dinner table and listen to lectures?,” he wrote in the New York Times this week. 

Blunder over missile defence 

But Russia is not the only country to exacerbate the war of words. During a US Congressional debate over the funding of the US missile defence plan in Eastern Europe, some legislators cited the Russian threat as an argument for the missile defence effort. 

“As Russian ballistic missiles rain down on Georgia, we should honour our commitment to allies in Poland and the Czech Republic,” Republican representative Mark Kirk said, in spite of efforts by the US administration to present the ballistic defence plan as intended for rogue states such as Iran rather than Russia. 

How to punish Russia 

However, some analysts see at least one important difference between today’s Russia and the USSR. A well-known fact is that the Russian elite keeps its money in the West, buys houses there and sends its children to study in Western universities. This means, according to them, that Russia does not want a new Cold War. 

Asked if he was pleading for sanctions to be introduced against Russia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gave the French daily Liberation a telling answer: “This could be very efficient. Imagine that they [the Russian elite] could not go to Courchevel in wintertime any more, that would be a disaster for them.” 

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. 

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