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West Reassesses Relationship With Russia In Wake Of Georgia Conflict

  • Brian Whitmore

President Saakashvili (center) with leaders of Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in Tbilisi

Despite the continued presence of Russian troops in Georgia, Tbilisi looks like anything but the capital of a defeated power.

Speaking before tens of thousands of flag-waving Georgians at a nighttime rally on August 12, a defiant and visibly confident President Mikheil Saakashvili vowed defiance in the face of Russia's military might.

Standing with Saakashvili were not just his own people. In a striking display of solidarity, the leaders of five other former communist countries that had suffered Russian occupation -- Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- shared the stage with the Georgian president.

Summing up the message the group sought to send, Estonian President Toomas Ilves said, "If other people's freedom is threatened , if democracy somewhere is under fire, then it is not long before our freedom is threatened and our democracy comes under fire."

The demonstration of solidarity and defiance illustrates the dramatically changing geopolitical landscape in the wake of Russia's military campaign against its tiny southern neighbor.

Since its forces entered Georgia on August 8, Russia succeeded in showing the world that it has the military firepower and political resolve to impose its will on its neighbors if it so chooses. But at the same time it is also causing many in Western capitals to reassess their perceptions of and relationships with Moscow.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says Russia needs "a certain degree of acceptance from the West" in order to be a global player. Such acceptance, Pifer says, now appears to be at risk.

"The image of Russia bombing a small neighboring state has got to draw people's attention in a way that some of the other things Russia has done in the last several years may not have drawn their attention," Pifer says.

NATO Failure?

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and its European allies have gone to great lengths to treat Russia as a reliable partner in international affairs, even as the Kremlin has rolled back democratic freedoms over the past decade.

New EU and NATO member states from Eastern Europe, with fresh memories of Russian domination, have been more eager to confront Moscow.

At a NATO summit in Bucharest in April, for example, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states joined the United States in pushing for Georgia and Ukraine to be given a Membership Action Plans (MAP), a key step before full membership. But they were unable to sway larger members like Germany and France, who are wary of antagonizing Moscow, which staunchly opposed membership for the former Soviet states.

Pifer says NATO's failure to give Georgia a MAP in Bucharest could have emboldened Moscow. "I think the Russians took the wrong lessons from Bucharest. There was a lot of Russian pressure and rhetoric against both Georgia and [Ukraine] getting Membership Action Plans before Bucharest," he says.

"I've heard that Russians regard Bucharest as a success. And what you saw after Bucharest was an increase in pressure," Pifer adds. "So NATO has got to think how you respond to this because you don't want the Russians to conclude that this is a successful tactic that they can use again."

The image of five European leaders -- four of them from NATO and European Union member states -- standing with Saakashvili in Tbilisi was clearly aimed at prodding Western leaders into a more robust defense of Georgia.

Speaking in Washington on August 13, U.S. President George W. Bush stressed that the United States stands by Tbilisi.

Bush announced a massive humanitarian effort for Georgia that involves C-17 military aircraft and naval forces. Bush warned Russia to assure that "all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, roads, and airports" remain open to let the supplies through. Bush also dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Paris and Tbilisi to help in diplomatic mediation efforts.

Moscow In A New Light

Pifer and other analysts say Russia's military incursion into Georgia -- the country's first large-scale use of force beyond its borders since the Soviet breakup -- is sparking a reexamination of Russia's intentions and reliability as a partner in global affairs on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I've been asked for a couple years now if we are back in the Cold War, and I've always said no," Pifer says. "But certainly this kind of action reminds one of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. And I think it does require that Western capitals and also Russia's neighbors take a look and ask what is Russia about, both in terms of its objectives, but also in terms of the instruments and the means it is prepared to use to pursue those objectives."

Such a reassessment could prove costly for Russia, which craves global respectability and membership in key international institutions.

Russia is a member of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial nations, is negotiating a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union, is in talks to join the World Trade Organization, and has won a voice in the West's military affairs via the Russia-NATO Council.

At an EU meeting in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on August 13 appeared to cryptically suggest that Russia could be in danger of being expelled from the G8.

Miliband repeatedly and pointedly referred to the fact that the situation in Georgia is being discussed in the "G7" -- as the group was called before Russia joined in 1997 -- as opposed to the G8. Miliband called it "unprecedented for G7 ministers to act separately from the eighth member" adding that this is "one political consequence" of Russia's behavior.

Britain's top diplomat also suggested that the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement being negotiated between Moscow and Brussels could be in danger.

"The European Union will want to consider how it proceeds with the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement," Miliband said. "The need for a common energy policy I think is strengthened as a result of these events that we have seen."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, said that the EU would address the state of relations with Russia at a foreign ministers meeting in September.

Matthew Clements, Eurasia editor for the London-based Jane's Country Risk, says we haven't reached the point where Western powers are prepared to take drastic steps like expelling Russia from the G8 or suspending negotiations on an agreement with the EU.

"It really depends on how Russia acts right now," Clements says. "If Russia continues with policies seen as aggressive by the West, if it doesn't seem willing to enact a fair peace, these kind of developments, then I think some of these issues could come to fruition. And then we are going to see a certain recalibration."
Rally In Tbilisi

Leaders from Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania speak to thousands in the Georgia capital on August 12 (Reuters video). Play

For RFE/RL's full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here.