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Beyond Russia's Near Abroad

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
August 19, 2008

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The Kremlin's relations with many Western capitals had grown fraught long before Russian military actions in Georgia this month triggered some of the sharpest rhetorical exchanges since the end of the Cold War. Contention has built up in the UN Security Council over issues ranging from Kosovo (RIA Novosti) to Myanmar to Zimbabwe (CNN). New energy and security alignments in the Caucasus and Central Asia have revived talk of a "Great Game" between Russia and the West in the region.

But Russia has remained a Western partner, with a full place at the elite Group of Eight (G-8) table, and has served a critical role in issues ranging from nuclear nonproliferation to combating terrorism. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), long engaged in efforts to limit the spread of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union, says: "The facts are that the United States has to work with Russia on Iran, on nuclear problems of proliferation, on a whole raft of trade issues." Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told Spiegel magazine: "There is not a single critical problem in world politics or the global economy that could be solved without Russia—not the nuclear conflict with Iran, the North Korea question and certainly not bringing peace to the Middle East." Schroeder, who holds a top position with a German-Russian-Dutch joint venture working to bring Russian natural gas to Western markets, cited a mutual dependency of Europe needing Russian gas and Russia needing European markets.

Yet U.S. leaders, in particular, have warned of consequences for the relationship if Russia fails to abide by commitments to withdraw forces from Georgia, which Washington has backed for NATO membership. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates canceled two joint military exercises with Russia scheduled for this month. While dismissing the prospects for a military conflict, he warned Russia (NYT) if it does not step back what from what he called "its aggressive posture" in Georgia, the U.S.-Russia relationship could suffer lasting damage. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia can't use "disproportionate force" against Georgia and remain on track for integration into international institutions (WashPost).

Questions remain about the degree to which the United States and its transatlantic partners will agree over tough steps to isolate and pressure Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week signaled (BBC) that NATO membership was still open to Georgia, while at the same time her foreign minister stressed important Western institutions must remain open to Russia. The European Union's newest members have so far shown more solidarity with Georgia's leadership than many of the bloc's older members. Says Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves: " I think there is actually a very pro-Russia, Russophile coalition inside the European Union which places good business relations above European values of human rights, democracy, and so forth" (RFE/RL). Sabine Fischer from the European Institute for Security Studies in Paris tells Eurasianet: "There is no EU when it comes to conflict resolution in Georgia, there are only member states."

Another question is how much Western pressure and engagement matter to Russia's current leadership. Analyst Pierre Hassner, writing recently in the Journal of Democracy, says after years of perceived slights, Russia's foreign policy has in recent years seemed to be based on thwarting the West (PDF). "Obstructionism seems to be a priority even when Moscow shares Western goals, such as avoiding an Iranian nuclear capacity," he writes. RFE/RL's Daniel Kimmage writes that Russia's elite cares mostly about serving private financial interests and maintaining power but that the Georgian conflict might be seen as a"tipping point at which domestic propaganda is beginning to force action abroad." Russian leaders, meanwhile, insist the military offensive into Georgia was prompted by Georgia's recklessness (FT), and are known to be eager for a change in leadership in Tbilisi.

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