Georgia Crisis Hurts Russian Relations with West, but West's Leverage Limited
Two days after Russia and Georgia agreed to a cease-fire, the truce has yet to be fully implemented and Russian forces have yet to leave Georgian territory. Added to that has been a raging war of words and thinly veiled threats. The potential long-term implications for Russia's relations with the West.
When U.S. President George Bush threw America's full support behind Georgia on Wednesday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dismissive and is reported to have said that Washington needs to choose between its "virtual project" in Georgia and real partnership, referring to Russia.
Russia's actions in Georgia have raised concern throughout Europe and have drawn warnings from London. Speaking on British radio, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Russia's actions amounted to blatant aggression.
"The sight of Russian tanks rolling into parts of a sovereign country on its neighboring border will have brought a chill down the spine of many people - rightly, because that is a reversion to - it's not just Cold War politics, it's 19th Century ways of doing politics," he said.
Miliband said there was never a doubt that Russia could easily defeat the small Georgian army. But, he warned Russia needs to let go of the old Soviet ways.
"The Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore. There is no such thing as ex-Soviet space," he said. "There is a new map of eastern Europe and the border area of Russia and I believe it's actually in Russia's interest to come to terms with that. It's not in Russia's interest to continue to hanker for a Soviet past because frankly, it's gone and it's good that it's gone."
And, the British foreign secretary said, Russia should think about the longer-term implications for its relations with the West.
Russia's overwhelming response in Georgia and the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia is widely seen as symptomatic of Russian grievances over western actions. These include the expansion eastward of NATO and the European Union into what was once the Soviet sphere of influence, American plans for a missile defense system in eastern Europe and western support for the independence of Kosovo from Russian ally Serbia.
Georgia wants to join both the EU and NATO and some argue that had Georgia been accepted into NATO, this conflict would not have occurred. Former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind rejects that notion.
"The United States, Britain, France, Germany are not going to go to war with Russia over South Ossetia, no matter how sympathetic we might be to the people of Georgia. We're sympathetic to Tibet, we're sympathetic to Zimbabwe. We don't contemplate military solutions to these problems and so NATO membership is not the answer," said Rifkind.
The Georgian conflict has shown a resurgent Russia ready to use harsh power politics to advance its aims says international security analyst Michael Denison of London's Chatham House research center. And, he says there is no unified vision of what do about it, especially given western Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas.
"You look at the U.K. and the U.S., not directly dependent on Russian energy - willing and able to take a sharper line with Russia. And, if you look at the east of Europe, they also are fearful of Russia and want to take a sharper line," he said. "The crucial issue is what about the central belt of core European states - Germany, Italy, France, all of whom have look to cut bilateral deals, looked to accommodate Russia - how will they react."
Denison says the question is whether Europe will be able to forge a unified, combined response to Russia and a common energy security plan to get out from under its dependence on Russian energy.
"The chances are pretty slim of that in the short to medium term," he said.
So, the West's leverage is limited. But many say what is likely to be the first fallout from the Georgian crisis will be a definite cooling of relations with Russia - maybe not to old Cold War levels, but a cooling all the same.