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Nothing Surprising In Russia's Unexpected Moves

Will the West learn to stop being surprised by Russia's actions?
Will the West learn to stop being surprised by Russia's actions?
U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Julie Finley recently told RFE/RL that Russia's move to prevent the OSCE from extending the mandate of its mission in Georgia came as "a surprise" to her.

Similar sentiments were heard from many Western officials back in August, when Russia's large-scale military intervention in Georgia seemed totally unexpected to them. A short time later, Moscow again took the West by surprise when -- in violation of the UN Charter -- it recognized the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

It seems that only Central and Eastern Europeans -- as well as Georgia's own leaders -- have a good sense of what to expect from Vladimir Putin's Russia. "Russia's attack on Georgia was not unexpected," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told a conference in Riga in November at which international experts assessed how the international situation had been altered by the Russia-Georgia war.

Saakashvili's counterparts from Poland and the Baltic states -- educated by bitter historical experience -- have long tried to persuade their Western allies that the world must be prepared for "unexpected" moves from the Kremlin.

But these warnings have largely fallen on deaf ears, and the West continues to be surprised.

Russia's challenge to the OSCE was a perfect win-win situation for the Kremlin. Either the OSCE would join Moscow (and Nicaragua!) in recognizing the statehood of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or the Kremlin would succeed -- as it did -- in its step-by-step tactic of eliminating international players from the conflict-resolution process. After all, for years Russia has labored successfully to block every effort by Tbilisi to internationalize the effort to settle the conflicts in the region.

Now, according to Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, a European Union monitoring mission will be Georgia's "only shield against Russia." And that shield seems particularly fragile considering that Moscow, despite an EU-Russia agreement to the contrary, continues to deny EU monitors access to the breakaway regions. The EU mission can offer no real protection as long as the Western democracies, which are deeply divided among themselves on the Georgian issue, fail to reassess their Russia policies and make a greater effort to bring it into line with their own espoused principles.

Russia Emerges Unscathed

That, of course, seems highly unlikely. Less than five months after the August war, the West is gradually returning to business as usual with Moscow. In November, the EU decided to resume talks on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia. NATO, after refusing to offer membership road maps to Georgia and Ukraine earlier this month, last week resumed high-level meeting with Moscow after a four-month hiatus in response to the war. That informal meeting between NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Moscow's NATO Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin was intended to explore ways of restarting formal contacts.

In short, Russia's military muscle-flexing in August seems to be paying off, as David Smith, director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center, argues in "Jane's Defense Weekly." Nikolas Busse wrote in "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" that the August war seems to have had little downside for the tandem of Prime Minister Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Moscow seems to be playing the same game at the United Nations. The mandate of the UN observers mission in Georgia expires on February 15, and Moscow is pushing for a separate, independent UN mission in Abkhazia with no links to the headquarters of the UN observer mission in Tbilisi. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad hinted in an interview with AP that the Russians have made efforts to change the name of the mission in order to gain status for "some entities." "We resisted those changes, those efforts," Khalilzad added. But for how long?

News that the United States and Georgia are discussing the text of a new bilateral charter is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy picture for Tbilisi. The U.S. State Department has said the proposed accord "will outline Washington's enhanced cooperation to help Georgia advance security, democratic, and market economic reforms to strengthen Georgia, bolster our partnership, and deepen Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration." This charter -- similar to one signed by the United States and Ukraine on December 19 -- is expected to be formalized in early January, Georgia's foreign minister announced on December 25.

It remains to be seen whether Tbilisi's enthusiasm for this as-yet-unsigned and, incidentally, nonbinding agreement is justified. "If the word 'strategic' appears in our relations, this will be the most articulate answer to the aggression against Georgia," Saakashvili said on December 22, expressing the hope the new accord will use the expression "strategic partnership," as the agreement with Kyiv does.

But the State Department's "Guidance on Non-Binding Documents" offers some sobering words: "When negotiating a non-binding instrument, both/all sides should confirm their understanding that the instrument does not give rise to binding obligations under international law." What would seem to be a positive step toward enhancing Georgia's security might actually end up just teasing the Russian bear. And without concrete defense mechanisms and with Russia being allowed to continue occupying internationally recognized Georgian territories, that could prove extremely dangerous indeed.

After all, no move by the Kremlin -- no matter how "unexpected" -- should come as a surprise. As Harvard University Russia specialist Marshal Goldman has said, "Russia is predictable in the sense that it will continue to be unpredictable."

David Kakabadze is director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL