Russia, West mull options in stare-down over Caucasus

Citing Kosovo, Moscow recognizes Abkhaz, Ossetian independence

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Saturday August 30, 2008

Russian navy cruiser Moskva (background) dropped anchor in Abkhazia this week. In this NATO photo it is seen side by side with a British vessel in 2006 exercises.

Washington - Moscow on August 26 recognized the independence of Republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia's rule in the early 1990s.

The bold move came just two weeks after the end of Russia's military campaign in Georgia in defense of the two republics. It aroused a new round of condemnation from the United States and most Western states.

But it remained unclear what exactly Georgia's Western backers could do to enhance that state's security without undermining their own priorities.

Most observers suggested that U.S. efforts to contain Iran and continue operations in Afghanistan may immediately suffer from a cool-down in relations with Russia. Moscow has also threatened to reciprocate with an embargo on American goods should there be any U.S. sanctions. (Both General Motors and Ford now have plants in Russia.) For major European powers like Germany and Italy, Russian energy supplies clearly take priority over Georgia.

So far, U.S. officials have employed tough rhetoric, with some arguing that the United States should help re-arm the decimated Georgian military. Vice President Dick Cheney will be touring Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine during the first week of September in a visit apparently intended to shore up shaken U.S. influence. His visit will almost certainly feature more harsh talk.

The steady stream of U.S. visitors has in recent weeks included the wife of Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain and three U.S. senators, including Foreign Relations Committee Chair Sen. Joe Biden, who this week became the Democratic Party's nominee for vice president of the United States.

In addition, two U.S. vessels arrived in the Black Sea for an earlier scheduled exercise and delivered humanitarian aid to Georgia in a show of mostly symbolic support. Turkey's refusal to allow larger U.S. vessels into the Black Sea prevented a more impressive show of symbolism.

Meantime, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet arrived in Abkhazia, where Russia will soon be establishing a permanent base. Russians have also promised to raise their naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea.

Diplomatic maneuvers

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia said his nation was "not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a Cold War," although adding that Russia would prefer to avoid one. Mr. Medvedev also recalled the United States' unilateral recognition of Kosovo earlier this year and argued that the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was the only sure way to safeguard peoples' lives there.

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, suggested that Russia decided to take the step to recognize the two republics after France - apparently under insistent U.S. pressure - withdrew references to future talks on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from a draft United Nations Security Council resolution, in effect supporting Georgia's claims on the two republics.

"So, they were the ones who immediately started walking away from this diplomatic opportunity," forcing Russia to take the "Kosovo route," the Russian diplomat suggested.

Kosovo, however, has been recognized by 40 countries worldwide, including three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. No such support for Russian recognition is currently anticipated.

In fact, as Armenian expert Aleksandr Iskandarian pointed out this week, Russia's move is more akin to Ankara's recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus rather than the U.S.-initiated recognition of Kosovo, which was a long drawn-out process.

The only exceptions, in terms of open support for Russia's position in Georgia, may come from states closely tied to Russia, such as Belarus and Tajikistan, or openly hostile to the United States, such as Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela.

Eurasian fence-sitting

A majority of Eurasian states, including the fifth permanent member of the Security Council, China, and two regional powers bordering on the Caucasus - Iran and Turkey - have taken a neutral position on the conflict.

Following a meeting between Russian and Chinese leaders at a regional summit in Central Asia, China issued a statement on August 27 that referred to "the complicated history and reality of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia issues" calling for resolution of issues through "dialogue and consultation."

Importantly, the statement did not refer to anyone's territorial integrity - something that for China remains the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Chinese leaders may have also taken personally the fact that Georgia launched its attack on South Ossetia on the day of opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Turkey, a NATO member that recognized Kosovo, has not criticized Russia's actions in Georgia and appeared to welcome signs of a decline of U.S. influence in the Caucasus.

Iran and Israel, both keen on courting Russia, have taken similar positions calling for a peaceful settlement without concrete assessments of the conflict.

On September 1, European Union states will meet in Paris for an emergency session on relations with Russia, but as Moreau Defarges of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) suggests, EU members will prioritize a unified message of criticism along with continued dialogue with Russia rather than any concrete sanctions.

"The West is not going to go to war for Georgia," Mr. Defarges asserted to Radio Liberty.
Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili who was expected to attend the European summit no longer plans to; although he explained his decision with reference to a fear that he might somehow be prevented from returning to Georgia.

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