- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2011

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accuses Russia of staging violent attacks across the administrative boundary lines (ABLs) of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite a cease-fire agreement that ended the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, relations are tense - and getting worse. Renewed violence could risk the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations, undermining cooperation that is critical to preventing proliferation by Iran and in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Libya.

On Aug. 7, 2008, Russia’s 58th Battalion stormed into South Ossetia, and Russian warplanes hit targets across Georgia. Russian troops halted their offensive just 25 miles from Tbilisi. Despite the six-point cease-fire agreement that ended hostilities, Russia has pursued policies aimed at weakening Georgia and getting rid of Mr. Saakashvili.

Russia occupied additional territories in Georgia, such as Akhalgori and the Kodori Gorge, and illegally established buffer zones around South Ossetia. It blocked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from South Ossetia, vetoed the United Nations observer mission in Georgia from working in Abkhazia and obstructs the European Union monitoring mission from entering the conflict zones. Russia restricts access for humanitarian and human rights monitors. After recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, Russia signed 49-year lease agreements and deployed 10,000 troops, attack helicopters, tanks and offensive rockets where they had not been before the war.

Why should the United States be concerned? Georgia is a friend and ally. The United States provided more than $1 billion in foreign aid after the war. The 2009 U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership enshrines cooperation. Georgia contributes 1,000 troops to NATO operations in Afghanistan. Georgia’s location makes it a vital trans-Eurasian energy-transit country, enhancing energy supplies to the West. Left unchecked, Russia’s neo-imperialist tendencies could destabilize the South Caucasus, swallow Georgia and undermine energy security for the West.

The top priority is to prevent renewed conflict. The Obama administration should urge Russia to withdraw its forces from occupied territories in Georgia. It also should demand greater transparency of Russia’s military activities in the conflict zones and expanded access by European monitors.

In addition, the United States and EU should work with Georgia to adopt a carrot-and-stick strategy aimed at getting Russia to change its calculus. This would involve economic incentives, confidence-building and weaning Abkhazis and South Ossetians from Russian control through mutually beneficial commercial contacts with Georgians.

The United States should promote Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization this year. If Russia is more accommodating in the South Caucasus, the U.S. can influence private equity markets that are critical to sustaining Russia’s economic development and privatization plans that offset budget shortfalls.

Discussion is better than provocation. The Geneva talks are a difficult but necessary forum for interaction between Russian and Georgian officials. They will not result in a peace settlement but can serve as a useful forum to prevent an incident from spiraling out of control.

Confidence also can be restored through a Declaration of Principles on the Non-Use of Force, signed by Georgia, Russia and the de facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Because the declaration is not a treaty between sovereigns, it would not imply recognition by Georgia of the runaway republics. The declaration would bolster Georgia’s demand that Russian troops withdraw. It also would show that Georgia is serious about engagement.

Engagement and nonrecognition are not mutually exclusive. Facilitating travel would facilitate people-to-people contacts. Restoration of tea and citrus agro-industries across the ABLs can establish a web of shared interests. Black Sea tourism and the 2014 Sochi Olympics also represent opportunities for commercial cooperation. Restrictions on international air and sea connections to Abkhazia, especially ferry links to Turkey, should be relaxed. Humanitarian, health care and educational exchanges can be expanded.

While pressing the “reset” button has enabled the United States and Russia to work more effectively together, underlying tensions still exist. Some Russians see the U.S. in competitive terms. Russia’s official military doctrine still designates NATO as Russia’s prime external threat, thereby justifying military spending and Russia’s strategic nuclear force. The Obama administration recognizes that Russia has special interests in the former Soviet space but not the notion that Russia has a sphere of influence.

Fully implementing the six-point cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia is the best way to safeguard peace and stability in the South Caucasus. Strategic patience is one way to keep conditions from worsening. However, problems will fester unless the United States is more proactive in addressing their root causes.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and a fellow at Harvard University’s Project on the Future of Diplomacy.