EDITORIAL: Russia rules

Intimidation works.

This is the lesson the Russian government has derived from its August military action against Georgia. President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have made it clear that neighboring states will remain in Russia’s sphere of influence rather than that of the West.

Russia recently recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations and intends to keep 7,600 troops in the region. Georgia is fractured, yet the international community is by and large appeasing the Russian bear. Moscow vehemently objected to the American-backed plan for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO - and it appears the Russian government won the showdown.

Last week, during a visit to St. Petersburg, German Chancellor Angela Merkel unilaterally stated that Georgia and Ukraine will not be given a road map to NATO membership later this year. At the Bucharest summit in April, both France and Germany thwarted the bid of the two former Soviet republics to enter NATO but agreed to revisit the issue in December. Yet Mrs. Merkel, without consulting other NATO members, is blocking the expansion of the alliance. During her visit, she also signed another bilateral gas deal with Russia, rendering Germany even more economically dependent on Russian energy. The German government has thereby undermined NATO, proceeded contrary to American wishes, ignored the concerns of Georgia and Ukraine and rewarded an aggressor.

Russia’s neighbors have also learned a lesson: Western goodwill is empty.

In April, Mr. Putin told President Bush that Ukraine is not a real state - sparking fears that Russia may next attempt to seize Ukrainian territory; Mr. Putin warned that Moscow may consider incorporating the eastern part of Ukraine and the Crimea into Russia proper. Moscow has long sought to undermine Ukraine’s pro-Western coalition government led by President Viktor Yushchenko. Shortly after the invasion of Georgia, Mr. Yushchenko’s coalition crumbled; a third parliamentary election within three years will be held in December. Ukraine too is now trying a little appeasement. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (who takes a softer position on Russia) recently signed a natural-gas deal with Moscow and also said she supports Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have demonstrated that the West is powerless to protect Russia’s neighbors. Mrs. Merkel stated that the plan to include Georgia and Ukraine in NATO provoked Russian aggression in August. Instead, the German leader should ponder whether the provocation emanated from her decision in April to kowtow to Russian demands - behavior which emboldened Moscow to act against Georgia. If Mrs. Merkel’s logic is sound, then, in light of her rejection of the NATO bid, Russian troops should withdraw completely from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Yet it is more likely that recent Western weakness will serve to only further whet Russia’s appetite for dominating its neighbors.

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