One Against All

MOSCOW, Russia -- President Dmitry Medvedev’s surprise recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has drawn near universal condemnation from the West, and at best lukewarm acquiescence from elsewhere. But despite such unanimity, Western powers have failed to come to agreement on due punishment for Russia among themselves.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

As the West overcomes initial shock, it is beginning to look like a new consensus has emerged. From the early days of the South Ossetian conflict, the West, or at least Europe, seemed to be divided on the issue.

On the one side, the United States, the United Kingdom, and a number of East European countries took a position of uncompromising (and from the point of view of many in Russia, hypocritical) opposition to Russia’s actions in South Ossetia.

That was tempered by a more nuanced approach from some (mostly Western) European countries. These included some traditional Russian allies. Germany, Russia’s largest trading partner and collaborator on the Nord Stream gas pipeline, initially called for restraint and an end to violence, but avoided blaming Russia for the conflict.

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is reputed to enjoy remarkable personal rapport with Vladimir Putin, flew to Russia to broker a peace deal. Italy’s foreign minister warned against forming an “anti-Russian coalition” and said Italy’s position was “close to Putin’s.”

However real or imagined this division was, it was one Russia seemed keen to play up, and even to broach talk of a Russian-European “bloc.” Speaking the day after Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement, Col. Gen Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy of Geopolitical Studies and a senior military analyst, listed a string of countries in “Old Europe” that he said were not interested in a conflict.

Ivashov is known for his conservative and often anti-American views, but the sentiments he expressed are widespread. That makes the shift in European diplomatic rhetoric following Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia all the more significant. The European leaders were unanimous in condemning the move as “absolutely unacceptable.”

Perhaps more significant than universal expression of “regret” at Russia’s decision was the direct criticism of Russia’s actions in Georgia that accompanied it. The Italians, previously so “close to Putin,” felt compelled to warn against the “ethnic-based balkanization of the Caucasus.”

On August 27, the day after the recognition, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kuchner said that in a certain way, “ethnic cleansing” was taking place in South Ossetia in villages previously held by the Georgian side.

It is, of course, difficult to image how else Europe’s leaders could have reacted. However, diplomatic expressions of disapproval do not necessarily mean Europe is now more united than it was.

Nor will they necessarily translate into concrete action. Nonetheless, there is a sense that Sarkozy’s peace plan has failed, and that the moderate West European approach has been discredited.

The most active and visible European statesman in the wake of recognition has not been Nicolas Sarkozy, but Britain’s far more hawkish Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Perhaps aware that Russia has burned its bridges in Europe, some are urging it to look for allies elsewhere. Even Ivashov seemed to be hedging his bets. “When people speak of the ‘international community’ they only mean the West,” he said, “but the West is not the only option. Today we need to build alliances in the south and east, where many countries share Russia’s interests and concerns.”

That may prove to be a vain hope. Reactions to the recognition in other parts of the world have been lukewarm at best. President Medvedev thanked his colleagues at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for their constructive support, but none of them actually went so far as to recognize the two republics.

China, Russia’s most powerful potential ally and certainly the only country with the clout to really offer a counterbalance to the West, is wary of offering encouragement to its own separatists in Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.

Nor has Russia’s move garnered support from Latin America, Southeast Asia or Africa. Only Belarus, which on Thursday evening announced it would recognize both republics by the weekend, has answered the call.

While Russia has apparently condemned itself to diplomatic isolation, Britain’s David Miliband busied himself organizing a response, setting off for Kiev to “gather support for the widest possible alliance against Russian aggression.”

If his choice of language reflects a hardening of resolve, the choice of destination shows how, at least for the West, the crisis has moved beyond the Caucasus.

With its large Russian population in the East, and especially in Crimea, which is also home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, many fear that Ukraine could be the Kremlin’s next target. NATO yesterday issued a statement reiterating that its members “support territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of our states-partners like Ukraine and Georgia.”

That is not an offer of NATO membership, but it could well entail other solidarity measures. “I don’t think a MAP offer for Ukraine has become any more feasible than it was,” said Richard Wilson, senior fellow at the Europe Institute for Foreign Relations, “but there could be an EU-Ukraine agreement including a solidarity clause that would do some of the security work NATO would do.”

More immediate measures could include delivering on (so far neglected) visa facilitation commitments, with an eventual eye to a visa-free regime. Much of this is likely to be discussed at a Ukraine-EU summit on September 9.

It is unclear, however, how reliable a partner Ukraine will prove in Miliband’s alliance. The foreign secretary met with President Viktor Yushchenko, who loudly backed Georgia in the recent conflict and has pressed all the harder for NATO membership since it began.

But there is a presidential election next year and Yushchenko’s popularity ratings are at their lowest ever. What’s worse, said Kiril Frolov, head of the Ukrainian department at the Moscow Institute of CIS countries, is that his support for Georgia has divided the country, and could even prove to be political suicide. “Yushchenko’s visit to Tbilisi contributed to a schism in Ukraine between the West, who supported it, and the East, where most people were disgusted.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, had a chance to be a unifying figure, but she squandered it when she approved Yushchenko’s decree limiting the movements of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

And that gave Viktor Yanukovich a chance to resurrect himself politically.” Yanukovich, who was almost a spent force in Ukrainian politics, seized the opportunity with both hands. He has now called on Ukraine to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and appears to be a strong contender for next year’s elections.

Much will happen before those elections, and with tensions rising, Russia’s current diplomatic isolation matters. Russia is in danger of being drawn into a confrontation without allies – or at least one that its allies want no part of. Russian military analysts are aware of the problem, and it may be some form of comfort that they, at least, have little appetite for further hostilities.

Despite its success in Georgia, the Russian military is not ready for any major confrontation. “Only about twenty percent of the armed forces are combat ready,” Anatoly Tsiganok, a military analyst, said at a press conference Wednesday. “The 58th Army (which fought in South Ossetia), the airborne forces, elements of the air force and elements of the Northern and Pacific fleets.” Asked how many wars Russia could fight simultaneously without allies, he answered "one."

Source: Russia Profile

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