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Russia/Georgia Conflict

Presider: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
Speaker: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
August 11, 2008

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OPERATOR: Excuse me everyone. Thank you for your patience in holding. We now have your speakers in conference.

Please be aware that each of your lines is on listen-only mode. At the conclusion of the speakers' presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time instructions will be given on the procedure to follow if you'd like to ask a question.

I'll now turn the conference over to Charles Kupchan. Sir, you may begin.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Thank you and good afternoon to everyone. Thanks for joining the conference call on the worsening situation in Georgia. We just heard notice in that last few minutes that Gori seems to have fallen to Russian troops in the last hour or so.

I am Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and also a professor at Georgetown. My colleague, Steve Stestanovich, is also on the line. Steve is also a senior fellow at the Council and a professor at Columbia.

We're going to proceed in the following manner. Steve is going to get us going with some opening remarks about the roots of the conflict and some thoughts on where we go from here, particularly for U.S. diplomacy.

I will then respond to Steve with some thoughts of my own. Steve and I may exchange a few ideas and then, by about 1:15 or so, we'll open it up to questions from all of you.

Steve?

STEVE SESTANOVICH: Thanks, Charlie, and thanks to all of you who've joined us this afternoon. I understand we've got a pretty large group on the line.

Charlie, let me start with just three points, because I think the Q and A part of this is the most interesting for our -- for those who've joined the call, and our discussion is probably the second most interesting. So let's get over the least interesting quickly. And that -- and here are my three points.

First of all, any war that breaks out in August is always a surprise of sorts, but this one is not really a surprise. I think people who have been watching this confrontation between Russia and Georgia over the past several months have been worried that war was a real possibility for some time.

Certainly American officials that I've been talking to have had that anxiety. I believe European officials have as well. That's one of the reasons that the German foreign minister was in Tbilisi just -- (audio break) -- weeks ago, week and a half ago.

Since the Western action to recognize Kosovo in March and the NATO summit in April, Russian policy has been putting increased pressure on Georgia. And the question was really at what point the two sides would bump up against each other in a way that would escalate. And we've now seen how that has materialized.

The precipitating event was the Georgian move, which I'm sure they wish they could have back now, of storming into Tskhinvali, which is the capital city of -- or town, really. We're talking about a very lightly populated, small area -- of South Ossetia. But that had been preceded by shelling from the Russian- controlled side of the line into Georgian villages. And even that confrontation had been preceded by a set of other pressures on Georgia -- military overflights by -- led by Russia which they didn't deny, which were certainly provocative; shooting down of Georgian drones; upgrading their relationship with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, not quite recognizing them as independent states, but certainly treating them as ceasing to be part of Georgia; adding to their military forces there.

This has been steadily intensifying, and if it hadn't been this it would probably have been something else. And whether the Georgians had to respond quite -- the old way that they did in order to produce this kind of Russian response, we're not going to know that, either.

But both sides have been circling each other, and there was an increasing likelihood that you were going to get some kind of outcome of this sort.

Now, what's the nature of the Russian response? It seems to me at this point we're talking about an ongoing military campaign which they've shown no signs of letting up on.

Charlie, you mentioned that Gori has fallen. Russian military commanders have also announced that they've gotten the surrender of Georgian forces further west in the country, near Abkhazia. They have surrounded Georgian forces outside of South Ossetia.

The Georgians have said they're pulling back to defend the capital, in the words of the national security adviser, to prevent the fall of Georgia. So we're talking about really very extreme outcomes here as quite thinkable possibilities.

But even the outcome that the West and the Georgian government are seeking at this point is not really, given the status quo (ante ?) because when one talks of a ceasefire under these circumstances, you're talking about a situation in which large parts of Georgia would be occupied by Russian forces, but outside of these breakaway regions in which Georgia would be -- could possibly be cut in two, would be dismembered. And that's the best outcome.

Saakashvili has said this morning that he has signed a unilateral ceasefire, but he signed it -- signed a document that was offered to him by Foreign Minister Kouchner, the French foreign minister who's visiting. It hasn't been accepted by the Russians. It looks, from the way the Russians are talking, as though they are not interested in a ceasefire, but in surrender.

And Dmitri Medvedev, whose role everyone has been disparaging here, or minimizing, has spoken some significant words about the kind of role that Russia wants to have here. And he said that, in a nice phrase, Russia will continue its active role in the South Caucases once hostilities are over. And he said that it expects to be the guarantor of security in the region, meaning that nothing happens without their say-so.

The second point is the state of the military, ongoing military campaign and the possibility that you're now talking about quite extreme outcomes.

And finally, I'd just say a word about Western responses. I think all Western governments have really been caught off balance here. Even though it was not a surprise that there could be this kind of confrontation, it's clear that very few governments had been ready with a response.

And you see this in the -- halting formulations that are used to condemn the Russian action. The NATO secretary-general, for example, said this morning -- I understand, said that Russia is to be criticized for its disproportionate use of force.

You know, we're talking about the kind of language that is used, for example, when countries put down an insurrection in their own territory -- that's the kind of language people used about the Russians off in Chechnya -- not when you're talking about an invasion or cross an international border.

Gordon Brown has issued a statement saying that this is particularly worrying as a humanitarian catastrophe. That calls attention to a real need, but it's, again, to deflect attention to some extent from the issue of what's going on, which looks like conquest.

And I think that's the reality that Western governments are still kind of coming to terms with; that is, how to understand what has happened. Is this just a kind of outburst of sort of instability, difficult peoples of the Caucases fighting with each other, has they have for a long time, which is the way we tended to think of what was happening in the Balkans in the early '90s. Or are we thinking about aggression and --

KUPCHAN: Steve, could you speak up just a little? I understand some people can't hear.

SESTANOVICH: Okay.

Are we thinking about, you know, just typical tribal warfare, or are we thinking about real war and real conquest and a completely different picture of Russia from what we've had in the past?

I don't know how that answer is going to be reached or what the answer is going to be, but it seems to me that's the one that people are going to be addressing. And in a way, it's more important than whether they can think of some sanction, for example. People have been groping for what it is that other governments could do to show disapproval.

I think that's not the main issue. The main issue is to kind of understand exactly what has happened.

With that, let me stop, Charlie. And --

KUPCHAN: Thank you, Steve.

SESTANOVICH: (Inaudible) -- even hear from the group that's assembled.

KUPCHAN: Okay. Let me just add a few points, and then we'll open it up.

I would completely agree with Steve's characterization of this as a conflict that has been waiting to happen. And I think that the onus of responsibility falls heavily on the shoulders of both parties.

I think it's too easy to look at what's happening and conclude that the bear is back and here goes Russia again, invading and occupying its neighbors. I think that if you look at not just the last few months, but going back several years, both sides have been baiting each other.

And then in particular, since February and March when Kosovo seceded from Serbia and then at the NATO summit there was talk of Georgia and Ukraine entering NATO. Even though that was blocked by the Europeans, things have been on a slippery slope downward.

And the Russians have been stirring up trouble in Abkhazia, sending in more troops, ostensibly to build, help repair a railway, but just kind of upping the ante.

And apparently Russia also shot down a drone over Abkhazia.

And then Saakashvili, I think, from the beginning has been pushing the edge of the envelope in terms of Georgia's relationship with Russia, constantly talking about restoring territorial integrity and reincorporating Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia. And I think that, in many respects, Saakashvili got too close to the United States, and the United States got too close to Saakashvili.

And it made him overreach. It made him feel that, in the end of the day, the West would come to his assistance if he got into trouble. And that's part of, I think, why he made a very, very miscalculation last week and sent troops into South Ossetia to try to take the regional -- the provincial capital.

The other point I'd make is that I think it's obviously too soon to tell what Russia is up to, and that we will be able to get a sense in the next few days as to just how far Russia is going to go. I think it's fair to say that there was a kind of a ladder of escalation here, and that Russia is steadily climbing it in the sense that it could have restricted to operations to South Ossetia -- just kicking out the Georgian troops. But it didn't. It also opened a front in Abkhazia. It has now sent its troops beyond the two conflicted zones into Georgia proper.

And the question, I think, to keep on eye on in the next 24 to 48 hours is, is Russia going to go beyond the immediate zones outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Tbilisi, or is it going to stop? One could understand Russian military operations thus far in the following sense: that not only is Russia going to push the Georgian military out of the two regions -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but it is also going to create an exclusion zone.

And Gori is the main area -- strategic area for marshalling troops in the South Ossetia zone. And outside Abkhazia, to the south, there are a triangle of towns -- Poti the port; Senaki, an air field; and Zugdidi, a town with a military base -- that are very important to Georgia for marshalling any kind of military operation in Abkhazia proper.

So it's possible that Russia will take these strategic areas as a way of preventing a future Georgian threat to the two regions, and that would be one certainly less serious than if the fighting continues. And if Russia goes to Tbilisi; takes the capital city; deposes Saakashvili, that's obviously a much more serious set of circumstances than if it stops where it is today, even though already I think it's fair to say that Russia has used disproportionate force in reacting to the events in South Ossetia.

KUPCHAN: Steve, do you want to make any remarks, or shall we go straight to the Q&A?

SESTANOVICH: Let me just add one thing, Charlie. I remember the U.S. government analyses that were made when the Russians went back into Chechnya in the fall of 1999. And they were rather along the lines that you've just described -- you know, a kind of outlining a possibility for a limited operation that would be merely to, you know, restore order, and their presence north of the Terek River. I mean -- (inaudible) -- people with Chechen geography (laughs).

And there was a kind of sense that there was a logic to that, so 'probably' that was what they were going to do. And in reality, it was a much more massive, overwhelming intervention which didn't end for, you know, months, and in some ways years. And we are -- we're going to know soon, so there's no point in really making a prognosis. Except to say one thing, that campaign made Vladimir Putin the dominant force in Russia politics that he is and remains today.

And I think from the way the Russians have swept aside most, you know, attempts to, kind of, limit what they're doing, one gets the impression that there is a -- that least some people are contemplating that kind of much bigger operation --

KUPCHAN: Yes. SESTANOVICH: -- you know, to wipe out this problem for good. We can't be surprised by that at this point.

KUPCHAN: I would agree. And I was not suggesting --

SESTANOVICH: No, and I know you weren't.

KUPCHAN: -- (inaudible) -- the operation will stop. I'm simply saying, this is one way to set a standard for judging what Russia is up to.

SESTANOVICH: Right. I would add one thing, though, and that is, even your base case, you know, the thing that's more -- you know, that is less disturbing than the complete conquest and occupation of the country -- still involves the conquest and occupation of significant parts of Georgia that were not occupied and conquered before.

So it's -- they are not just an extension of a peacekeeping zone. They really do involve the military subjugation of Georgia.

KUPCHAN: I agree. Let's go to the listeners for a Q & A.

OPERATOR: At this time we open up for questions. If you'd like to ask a question, please press * key, followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phones now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. If at any time you'd like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press *2. Once again, to ask a question, please press *1 now.

Our first question comes from Joseph Curl, with The Washington Times.

QUESTION: Hello, gentlemen, how are you?

KUPCHAN: Hey there.

QUESTION: I'm interested in the immediate response by Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, who had statements on Saturday morning which ran about six minutes. Obama said, ("I strongly ?) condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia." And John McCain said,"Reports indicated that Russian military forces crossed an internationally recognized border into the sovereign territory of Georgia." So, very different responses within just a few minutes.

I'm wondering if this is indicative of how they would -- (inaudible) -- a dress rehearsal of dealing with that 3:00 a.m. phone call. So, I'm interested in what you guys think about the immediate responses from the two candidates.

KUPCHAN: Steve?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I've got to say that I've been an adviser to Senator Obama's Russia group, so I will have a -- you know, a different perspective on this, perhaps. I have not studied those comments carefully because I have to admit I just got back from vacation yesterday.

However, I believe that Senator Obama on Friday spoke of the -- used the word "invade" in talking about what had happened -- what the Russians had done. So, I'm not sure there's as much daylight between the two statements as you might -- as you might think. But I can't do a textual analysis for you.

I would say that, broadly speaking, the responses look kind of similar. But I'm not a spokesman for the campaign. I can't do that, in any way, in my capacity as a Council fellow, and I don't -- I don't want to be doing that now.

KUPCHAN: Okay.

SESTANOVICH: Charlie, do you want --? KUPCHAN: I'm not familiar enough with the positions of each camp to be able to add much, so.

Let's go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from Karen DeYoung, with The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Thank you. I was wondering if you thought that some of the, at least public statements that both Secretary Rice and President Bush has made, not only during their recent visits to Tbilisi but outside of that -- at least Rice's recent visit, saying that they were committed to Georgia's territorial integrity.

U.S. officials have said privately, 'oh, no, we've warned them; we kept telling them, don't provoke the Russians.' Do you think that Saakashvili had a legitimate reason to believe that the West was going to come to his assistance?

KUPCHAN: My own view is that -- is that he was getting conflicting signals. And that privately there were moments when the administration would speak truth to power and tell him to tone it down, and try to keep him on a shorter leash.

And there were other times in more public statements where I think the opposite was the case. And when American officials go around and talk about Georgia as a beacon of freedom --

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

KUPCHAN: -- and press hard to get Georgia into NATO and have Saakashvili frequently coming to Washington and, you know, very kind of buddy-buddy with members of the administration in -- as well as those in the foreign policy community --

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

KUPCHAN: -- I think it did send mixed signals.

Now did Saakashvili really think that NATO aircraft would have come to Georgia's assistance should Russia invade South Ossetia, as it's done? I don't know, but I do think that part of the problem here is that Saakashvili did get a little bit too big for his britches.

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

KUPCHAN: And, you know -- I'd put it this way, that, you know, both Russians and Georgians have been playing a game of chicken, except Saakashvili's been riding on a one-speed bicycle and the Russians have been driving an armored tank. And so it's not -- it's a very asymmetrical game and I think that Saakashvili nonetheless tempted fate, despite the vast asymmetries in power, in part because he was led to overreach by assurances of friendship with the West.

QUESTION: If I could just follow up on that, do you think that this -- I think that others may have shared the view that, as you say, all of the statements about democracy and beacon of freedom and territorial integrity, that others make look at this situation and say well you can't depend on these people, you can't depend on NATO, you can't depend on the United States, you can't depend on the West.

KUPCHAN: I think it -- I think that what has transpired does put the United States in an awkward position because the Georgians have had a couple thousand troops in Iraq --

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

KUPCHAN: -- the U.S. has 100 plus trainers in Georgia -- Q Mm hmm.

KUPCHAN: -- been working closely with the Georgian army. But on the other hand, there really isn't a lot that the United States can realistically do.

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

KUPCHAN: I mean, it can say cease fire, it can engage in diplomacy, but it's very difficult for me to imagine that the United States would contemplate intervention on Georgia's behalf. And so I think it does put the U.S. in an awkward political position.

SESTANOVICH: Erin, can I add a little bit to this, because I see it slightly differently. I think that, you know, the formula territorial integrity is pretty much diplomatic boilerplate and I don't think much extra tension was added into this situation by the use of that phrase. What that phrase meant was we don't recognize the, you know, sort of creeping partition or annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that began in April.

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

SESTANOVICH: Not recognizing it doesn't mean a kind of security commitment, and I think what the Georgians experienced at the NATO summit, you know, told them there was a lot of hesitation in the alliance on --

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

SESTANOVICH: -- that issue.

The specific question that was a live one in the course of the summer -- I mean, earlier this summer -- was whether the Georgians should declare that they, you know, they no longer accept -- and it got sort of close to this, they put the Russians on notice that they would do it -- should declare that they would no longer accept Russian peacekeepers with any kind of international mandate --

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

SESTANOVICH: -- that is, under any CIS mandate of any kind. And I think if you're asking whether the U.S. sort of sent mixed signals, understanding how they responded to that is interesting because the message, as I understand, it that the Russians -- that the Georgians got when they went around to western capitals asking this question, should we do this, was basically, you know, no you shouldn't because it'll be provocative and it won't do any good and we should kind of calmly try to develop a diplomatic track.

QUESTION: Mm hmm. SESTANOVICH: And I think the -- there's nothing mixed about that. It wasn't you shouldn't do that because you know, why not take them by surprise when you launch your military offensive. (Chuckles.)

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

SESTANOVICH: It was really we don't want this to overheat, we want to see whether there's a new track that's possible. And that's what the German foreign minister Steinmeier was doing in Tbilisi and in Moscow two weeks ago -- there was an attempt to get the Russians and the Abkhas to come to Berlin. You know the whole direction -- which they refused to do -- the wholedirection of this was toward a kind of calming of that atmosphere and a resumption of diplomacy. So to my mind, I know what Charlie's trying to say when he says Saakashvili, you know, got too big for his britches, but I think what was -- maybe the description that I would give it is more the kind of desperation of weakness. In an atmosphere where the Georgians saw the Russians kind of encroaching in a weakly way on positions that had been established in the past.

But as to the question of American reliability, I am sure that people around the region are reading this result carefully and drawing conclusions. I think you can see some of that in the fact that the Nazhaks (ph) and Azaries today said they are not -- they're suspending, you know, transport of oil through the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline through Georgia -- you know, they're putting themselves a little bit at a distance from this, but in ways that don't show solidarity with the Georgians. The only people who've shown any intasolidarity with the Georgians are the Ukrainians.

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

SESTANOVICH: And --

KUPCHAN: Let me just -- excuse me, Steve, you done?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

KUPCHAN: Okay. Just want to add -- want to add one further point because I think it's an important part of the bigger picture that we haven't discussed yet and that's Kosovo.

I think that American officials and analysts -- and I would put myself in this boat -- underestimated the scope of the Russian reaction to Kosovo's separation from Serbia. And the Russians at the time said that they may well retaliate by stirring up trouble in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And I think many people said well, that's going to be mostly talk. And in fact, they've gone ahead and done it. And I think part of it was just disgruntlement with the fact that the West seems to have ignored Russia on Kosovo, on NATO enlargement, on missile defense, on one thing after another. And part of it I think is a principled view is that the situation in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia isn't all that different from the situation in Kosovo -- minority groups that were persecuted by a majority population -- and so the Russians kind of said, hey, if Kosovo can unilaterally secede, why shouldn't we support Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

QUESTION: Mm hmm.

KUPCHAN: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Leanne Caldwell with Pacifica Radio.

QUESTION: Hello. Thanks for holding this. My question is what -- we kind of touched on it a little bit, but what does the U.S. have to gain and lose in taking a position or, or becoming involved in this or not becoming involved in this? And also in South Ossetia, is there is any, how strong is the separatist movement? You going to touch on that a little bit?

KUPCHAN: Steve, you want to start or?

SESTANOVICH: Well, you know, what there is to lose is the sort of first demonstration by potentially of kind of Russian military power to you know break one of the former Soviet states. And that sort of gets to the, to the you know, the stability of the framework that the U.S. thought was going to govern the post-Cold War world. And I, you know, I don't want to make that sound more dramatic than it is, but it's you know, when country's, when one country conquers another, you know that, that's typically regarded as pretty serious and the inability to do anything about it is, is something that the United States is not all that accustomed to.

I noticed somebody was talking today, using the phrase, perhaps sort of unthinkingly saying this you know, this invasion will not stand, it's kind of distant echo of what George Bush said after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. But you know, when that was said, nobody could think that it was, that the U.S. would really mount an invasion, but they also couldn't doubt that American power was capable of it.

Now that doesn't really seem to be the case. So I think there's a lot more anxiety about credibility and value American relationships, including security relationships, even though Georgia is not as it is sometimes described in the media a U.S. ally. There's no alliance with Georgia.

But still, there is clearly a building relationship here which is, you know, demonstrated to be not enough to protect the security of the country.

About South Ossetia, you know, this is a group that did secede in the early '90s. It is an example of, you know, ethnic divisions and hostilities. It's not just, you know, one group within South Ossetia that would be, you know, is totally with the Russians and everybody else and everybody -- and no one else ready to live within Georgia, but that group has been supported by the Russian military and the Russian state for so long that there's no real opposition to it. I mean, it's not as though there is a serious division within South Ossetia and, you know, and now that you had a kind of new outburst of warfare, you know, there -- the prospect, I mean, which now seems sort of (idly ?) and to think about the prospect of a peaceful reabsorption into Georgia is something that's hard to think of.

KUPCHAN: I would just add that I think it's not inappropriate to put this conflict in the context of a great (gain ?) that, you know, there is still a battle going on for influence -- Western influence versus Russian influence -- in the Caucasus and in the southern borderlands around Russia, and clearly I think as a result of this conflict Russia will probably feel that it has taken a step forward in maintaining a -- sphere of influence may perhaps be too strong a word but certainly reaffirmed it's political influence in the region, and I think it's also useful to point outthe energy equation. In fact, there is an oil pipeline that runs through Georgia from the Caspian to get oil to Europe without going through Russia and there's talk of putting in a similar gas pipeline and that issue is certainly not irrelevant to the broader calculus.

And then on the issue of attitudes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, you know, obviously like any ethnic conflict of this sort you get a different answer depending on who you talk to. The Abkhaz, for example, would say that they for a long time in the 1990s were prepared to live inside Georgia with some kind of federal autonomy -- some kind of political situation that would provide them freedom and that the Georgians rejected it, and the Georgians would say -- well, they'd tell you a much different story. But the bottom line is that in both areas the minority populations are not interested in staying part of -- (inaudible) -- have populations that are either Georgian or in some cases members of the minority that are allied with the Georgians. And in the southern part of Abkhazia in an area that's called the Gali district you have Georgians and you have another minority group that's called Mingrelians who see themselves as very close to the Georgians and they are not interested in Abkhazia being an independent state or joining Russia or anything of that sort, and that complicates the situation for the Russians and the Abkhaz because down in the southern part of Abkhazia along the border assuming that there is some kind of more formal separation from Georgia you have people living there who see themselves as part of a Georgian state.

SESTANOVICH: Just one little fact that people may not be aware of -- Abkhazia was not really an Abkhaz territory before the early '90s. It was -- the largest group is Georgians and I believe the second largest groups are Armenians and the ethnic balance was completely shifted by driving out large numbers of Georgians who became refugees -- couple hundred thousand -- so that you had a significant reduction in the population and shift in the ethnic balance, and for the Abkhaz what peace means is the return of Georgians who would then become the majority again.

KUPCHAN: That -- I think that's a very important point. I mean, I think that Abkhazia was 80 percent Georgian and only about -- less than 20 percent Abkhaz before the war in the 1990s.

SESTANOVICH: That's why the Georgians call what happened in Abkhazia ethnic cleansing. Their ethnic compatriots were driven out of Abkhazia. Right.

KUPCHAN: And that is quite different from South Ossetia where even when South Ossetia was a Soviet oblast it did have an Ossetian majority. That right, Steve?

SESTANOVICH: I'm not going to say yes or no.

KUPCHAN: Okay.

SESTANOVICH: I think that --

KUPCHAN: Pretty sure that's the case.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. Yeah.

KUPCHAN: Next question.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question come from Peter Spiegel with Los Angeles Times.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks again. Steve, I wanted to go back to this issue of the range of possible Western responses. I mean, I think you mentioned that the rhetoric, particularly out of NATO and Europe, the last 24, 48 hours has been pretty benign, talking about the humanitarian crisis and what not, and that the U.S. -- the U.S. response has been pretty boilerplate in terms of territorialsovereignty and what not. But we do have a statement from the vice president which seemed a bit more aggressive, saying Russian aggression --

SESTANOVICH: (Inaudible) -- yeah.

QUESTION: -- must not be an answer -- something along those lines. I think you seem to have ruled out and I think probably pretty much -- (inaudible) -- has ruled out any sort of military aid to Georgia but can you sort of give us a spectrum of below the level of outright military assistance what options really are present to the U.S. -- to the West -- and then maybe, you know -- (inaudible) -- the odds of what's likely (this happened ?). Are we talking sanctions? Are we talking -- you know, if the vice president's office does decide to really push this what kind of options are we looking at that are potentially the levers to pressure the Russians?

SESTANOVICH: Well -- look, I'd say one thing first, which is nothing meaningful here can be done just by, you know, as a matter of American policy. If you don't have a kind of consensus among the major European states that this is -- this represents something deeply shocking and, you know, different from their kind of image of the Russia that they've been dealing with then you're not going to have any sort of concerted response. That's, by the way, why you've had no real energy response to Russian energy dominance in Europe. You've had no coordinated policy, and the United States has not been able to or really sought to develop it.

There are, I think, some kind of de facto sanctions which last for a little while, for example, in the foreseeable future by which I mean, you know, over this year and the first part of next year. Nobody in the U.S. Congress is going to get up and say, let's graduate the Russians from Jackson-Vanik to mark their integration -- you know, their welcome back into the, you know, the international community. It's going to be a little less likely that the Russians are going to get into the WTO because, after all, one of the countries that's holding up their membership with -- because of genuine economic grievances is Georgia.

It's a little harder to imagine anybody making that extra push to get the Russians into the OECD. And those things will kind of subside and then people will come back to them depending on what the atmosphere is over time. That's why I say I think the -- well, let me go back for a second. The -- you know, the question is is there anything beyond that that gets done by way of sanctions in an attempt to, you know, actually impose material costs on the Russians. I doubt it. I think you'll -- you may get something different, which is an agreement that you need to have a concerted strategy -- that disunity is dangerous and that there, you know, it's unacceptable to go forward.

For example, if this is the spur to develop a coordinated energy policy between the United States and Europe for dealing with Russiathat would be one consequence that certainly the Russians would consider undesirable. Would they consider it as fundamentally (change of ?) the situation? Probably not. Would it be easy to do now? No, harder because states like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are going to be lying low. But I think the environment in which the seriousness of the kinds of measures that can be taken depend very much on whether you can build any sort of American-European consensus on this and I think it's much too early to say whether that's happening but some of the indicators of this at least rhetorical confusion suggest it won't happen.

KUPCHAN: I would just add that if there were a time for Europe's hour this would be it in the sense that Europe has a certain amount of leverage with Russia that the United States does not now because of the sense that the Bush administration and Saakashvili were as close as they were, and I think the Europeans to some extent realize that and that's why Kushnier has already been to Tbilisi and why Sarkozy is headed there and then to Moscow.

But, you know, sort of trying to look over the horizon it would not be inconceivable to me to try to get some kind of EU or EU OSCE peacekeeping or monitoring mission into Georgia once the dust settles to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up -- I mean, not to be too pithy about it but it sounds like your answer is that despite the fact the vice president says this will not go unanswered there really is no answer. I mean, it's likely other than some symbolic issues like Jackson- Vanik, WTO, that there really is nothing in the quiver that the U.S. without the agreement of the Europeans could actually do to answer this.

KUPCHAN: You're addressing that to Steve?

QUESTION: Well, either of you.

KUPCHAN: Yeah. I mean, I would say that that is true given where the conflict is today. If it -- if Russia continues to prosecute the war and moves beyond its current positions to Tbilisi and deposes the government and ends up occupying the country for a certain amount of time then I do think that there would be concrete steps, although it's difficult to know what they would be.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. I think the, you know, the short answer is that the options papers that are being drafted have still got a lot of gaps in them -- (inaudible) -- mostly gaps in them.

KUPCHAN: Yeah.

SESTANOVICH: But Charlie is right. How this unfolds in Georgia and how it's read elsewhere are the crucial factors, and I point out one thing to you. You know, it may be that at this point nobody is going to say; now we really do need to bring Georgia into NATO because there may not be that much of Georgia left to bring into NATO, and you may have a kind of, you know, big debate in Georgia about whether this whole approach was a mistake. But that may not be true in other countries and I've suggested that a lot of other countries may be intimidated by the Russian action and they -- and surely some will be.

But, for example, what does one think the consequences in Ukraine will be and, you know, are people in Ukraine going to take this as a real indication of, you know, the kind of determination that theRussians have to restore dominance over their neighbors, and what conclusions will they draw from that and what will the reaction of Western countries be. I mean, you could see that playing out in a way that maybe makes Western -- Ukrainian integration into the West more likely. I don't predict this but I think that's part of the, you know, set of unknowns that we're going to be having to watch over the next months and years and that may, you know, will determine who ends up really benefiting from this.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

KUPCHAN: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ann Gearan with Associated Press.

QUESTION: Hi. It's Ann Gearan with the AP. If I could direct this question to both of you and I'm sorry just to ask you to identify yourselves before you speak. The -- you both said a good bit about how the United States and some European countries to an extent could see this coming so why could no one seem to prevail on either side to stand down -- I mean, not to -- really not to pick this fight, and once picked not to exacerbate it. What does it say about the extent of U.S. influence in either place that it snowballed over the last couple days instead of going the other direction?

KUPCHAN: Well, my sense is that --

SESTANOVICH: This is -- that's Charlie.

KUPCHAN: Yeah, it's Charlie Kupchan -- that the -- part of the problem is that the eye was on the wrong ball in several different respects. One was that the U.S., and the Europeans for that matter, have been preoccupied elsewhere -- Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo -- and that the conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not get as much attention as it might have.

Secondly, I think the U.S., particularly the intelligence community, was carefully monitoring the situation in Abkhazia, and many people believe that it was in Abkhazia that the conflict was most likely to occur and that's in part because over the last several months that's where the greatest change has taken place. There's been continuous gunfire and shelling going on in South Ossetia but there was some pretty hot maneuvering going on over Abkhazia, and so I think that's where people were watching.

And then the third thing is I think this is one of those classic spirals where there was an escalation of tension over the last several months that then burst into flames in a way that caught everyone unaware. I don't think the Russians were sitting there waiting to send their tanks through the Roki Tunnel. Clearly, they have plenty of troops in the Caucasian military district but I don't think they saw this coming. So in that sense it was an unintended spiral ofevents, and then Saakashvili for reasons that we may never find out decided to go for broke when he invaded Tskhinvali last week.

SESTANOVICH: This is Stephen Sestanovich. I would disagree with this only to this extent. It's possible that as we reconstruct these events it'll actually look more as though the Russians kind of wanted this. They -- you know, they seemed to be prepared to move pretty quickly here and that's not always the case with a major Russian military operation. It took them weeks and months to get ready to launch this campaign against the Chechens, for example, in the fall of '99. This has happened very rapidly, admittedly involving few troops. So if they wanted it there's a little less of a mystery and less need for the kind of lively metaphors of, you know, bursting into flames which we analysts tend to reach for.

The other thing is the United States has probably, and the Europeans I think, exaggerated the impact of, you know, calm diplomacy -- that the effort that I described earlier spearheaded by the Germans to try to get everybody to sit around the table and trade proposals was one that people thought, you know, had some chance of working. But it plainly didn't seem like a satisfactory arrangement to either side given the kind of confrontation that they were moving towards. Can we take another question, Charlie?

KUPCHAN: Sure. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Trudy Rubin with Philadelphia Inquirer.

QUESTION: Hi. I'd like to explore the issue of what this really says about the Russians and the future of the relationship with the West that Steve brought up at the beginning. This is taking place only a couple of weeks before the date of the invasion of Czechoslovakia and there is so much about this that sort of seems to have a "so like them", Soviet KGB aspect to it. I wanted to ask Steve if he could refresh my memory about the Abkhaz uprising back in the early '90s where as I recall it there was a lot of KGB involvement in that and many in Moscow thought that the whole thing -- many journalists in Moscow -- Russian journalists -- thought and wrote that -- when they could back then write these things -- that it was stirred up by the Kremlin.

So how can the West now relate to Moscow if we never go back to the status quo ante and if the Russians simply hold on to where they are now -- say they stopped tomorrow -- they basically control Georgia. They have cut off energy before. They've cut off sales of wine, of mineral water. They're in charge now of the economy. They can practically get rid of Saakashvili. How do we relate to them now? Can they stay in the G-8? Is it the same relationship?

SESTANOVICH: I can't answer your question about the early '90s and Abkhazian -- (inaudible). Maybe Charlie can. I would say there's this difference between that moment and this. At the time,one didn't really know how well coordinated the institutions of the Russian -- of the new Russian state were, and you used sort of interchangeably KGB, military, Kremlin. You know, those were all institutions that were capable of a certain kind of independent action in that time that I don't think anybody believes is the case today.

If there was any question about how thoroughly Yeltsin commanded all of the forces that were constitutionally at his disposal, there's no question about Putin's ability.

QUESTION: Right.

SESTANOVICH: As to the G-8 and other institutions that are supposed to be kind of cooperative, or at last meaningfully consultative, it's an open question as to whether anybody thinks they work in a serious way.

I'm sure a lot of people will be wondering what the NATO Russia Council actually contributes to the interests of NATO. And it may be that people conclude, governments will conclude that, well, some of the interactions that we have with the military, some transparency, maybe some joint efforts on missile defense that have been proposed at various points to defuse the confrontation over the radars and interceptors in Poland and Czechoslovakia -- the Czech Republic -- that that justifies keeping these institutions.

And it may be people will say the G-8 still has a whole agenda of useful work to be done. Possible. Maybe even likely. But I think there will also have to be a kind of reexamination as to whether there's something just slightly too fraudulent about the framework that's been created, and too bizarre, in light of what we've seen of Russian conduct right within Europe.

QUESTION: Could I just ask a quick question of fact? Also, everyone is assuming that Saakashvili moved first. I was on vacation also, till yesterday. He is saying in the Wall Street Journal today that the tanks came over first.

Is there any clarity on that issue of whether there was a provocation? And also, are you both convinced that he did this without the U.S. giving any kind of amber light in the exact instance?

KUPCHAN: I can't answer the question of whether troops and armored columns were moving before Saakashvili moved. I haven't seen any evidence to support that.

SESTANOVICH: But there was certainly a lot of -- I think it's sort of accepted that there was a lot of shelling --

KUPCHAN: Oh, yeah. No question. SESTANOVICH: -- that represented an increase in the military confrontation. But who was on what side of the line, I don't know that.

KUPCHAN: Yeah. And those fingers will be pointed back and forth for the foreseeable future, and we may never have clarity on that question.

On the broader issue that you raised, and I can't answer the question about the KGB in Abkhazia, but there's no question that the Russians have been mucking around in Georgia ever since. But I think at times the Georgians have gone too far in attributing any ill that comes their way to the Russians.

So, for example, when Saakashvili clamped down on the opposition last November, he claimed that the protests in the streets of Tbilisi were being stirred up by Russian security agents.

QUESTION: Right.

KUPCHAN: And to my knowledge, there's no factual evidence to support that claim.

And then on the bigger issue that Steve was speaking to, I guess to try to rephrase your question, Trudy, it would be is this a game- changer? Is it possible to think about the U.S.-Russian relationship moving forward, looking somewhat like it's been in the past? Which is, you know, good days, bad days, but basically respectful and trying to make the best of a difficult situation. And I don't -- I can't answer that. I just think it's too soon.

I think it's safe to say that from here on out, the United States and its allies are going to look at Russia more warily, but I think whether this is a game-changer or not will depend a lot on what happens in the next few days and weeks. And that if in fact Russia continues to move in and dismember Georgia, then I think there's no question that it will be a game-changer.

SESTANOVICH: Just one last thought there. When the game changes -- as, for example, it did in the kind of mid-'90s when the U.S. decided to take a different policy toward the Balkans, it made a really big difference that you had an administration that was able to act and wasn't facing the prospect of -- disappearing within a matter of months.

It's very hard to imagine that kind of leadership being exercised with a lame-duck administration, particularly one as weakened as this one is.

So whether it's a game-changer is going to depend to some degree on the outlook that is taken by a new president in his early consultations with his counterparts in Europe. KUPCHAN: We are right at 2:00, so let me just thank you, Steve, for participating and adding your perspective on the conflict. And thanks to all of you who called in to participate.

Bye bye.

SESTANOVICH: Thanks a lot, Charlie.

KUPCHAN: Bye.

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