Where The West And Russia Clash

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- It is not the issues most in the news - Iran or Afghanistan. It is Europe's contested region: the countries between the eastern border of NATO and the EU and the western border of Russia.

Friendship monument, in Kiev, honoring the unification of Russia and Ukraine.

While the West and Russia still talk the talk of co-operative security in Europe, the geopolitical competition for influence has been renewed in the region.

Russia openly lays claim to a sphere of interest in its borderlands, in contradiction to commitments made under the Helsinki process. It has embraced policies and a military doctrine that sees the NATO military alliance as a threat, and justifies the right to intervene in these countries if they are attacked.

While packaged in smooth diplomatic speech, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's proposal for European security has the goal of stopping and rolling back Western influence.

With the Obama administration focused on Afghanistan and Iran, Moscow hopes the West, which needs its co-operation, will acquiesce to its demands.

And it is not only words. Eighteen months ago, a war took place in Europe between Russia and Georgia. It was a small war, but one that raised big questions.

It was not fought over the future status of Georgia's Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (although that conflict was a real one). The war's root cause was Georgia's desire to align itself with the West, and Russia's determination to stop it.

Many Western diplomats would prefer to forget the Russo-Georgian war or sweep it under the carpet, but none of the underlying tensions are resolved. There is no stable solution in sight for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has not abandoned the goal of breaking Georgia's desire to go with the West. Instability and separatism are growing in the northern Caucasus, making the region more volatile.

In late January, the Obama administration issued its first unequivocal reaffirmation of the strategy of democratic enlargement that has guided Western thinking since the collapse of the Iron Curtain two decades ago.

Speaking in Paris, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the enlargement of NATO and the EU had created unprecedented stability and security in the eastern half of the continent, Russia had benefited from this stability and it was critical Europe's doors remained open to further enlargement.

Mrs Clinton rejected Mr Medvedev's call to remake European security arrangements. And NATO has started engaging in defence planning and other forms of strategic reassurance for its allies in central and eastern Europe, which are unsettled by Russia's new assertiveness.

But what about the countries in between nations such as Ukraine and Georgia and the southern Caucasus? Ukraine has just elected as its president Viktor Yanukovich, who is unlikely to follow NATO's integration agenda, and if he follows through on his commitment to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, membership of the EU would be precluded.

But that does not mean tensions with Russia will disappear. Mr Yanukovich's victory notwithstanding, Ukraine is a country that is becoming more European and gradually moving out of Russia's orbit in its own chaotic way. And regardless of whether Georgians like or dislike their President Mikhail Saakashvilli, they want to go West too.

So Russia's attempts to bring these countries to heel are likely to continue and remain a source of contention and conflict. It is time for the West to debate what its strategy is and what it is not. Two decades ago, the West rejected "spheres of influence" because Europe's bloody history had taught us that compelling nations to align themselves with others against their will was wrong and a recipe for future conflict.

If we still believe that today, we need an updated moral and strategic vision for such countries, and to back it up with a real strategy. We need to be clear that Russia has a right to security, but that it does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of its neighbours, to topple their governments or deny their foreign policy aspirations.

Barack Obama is right to try to reset relations with Russia and engage a revisionist Moscow. As the US and Russia close in on a new arms control treaty, it is time to face the question of how we deal with Europe's contested regions.

Source: The Australian