- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008


The advance of Russian forces into Georgia in August significantly worsened an already contentious U.S.-Russian relationship and sparked a new political debate in the United States about the nature of Russian foreign policy.

For the last month, policy-makers have been considering ways to punish Russia for violating Georgian sovereignty and its disproportionate use of force and to develop a unified Western position aimed at thwarting future Russian moves against its neighbors.

If we don’t like what Russia is doing and where our bilateral relations are headed, then what are we going to do about it?

First, we have to recognize that Russia is a re-emergingpower that does not — and increasingly does not want to — “fit” into the post-Cold War system that evolved when it was weak. This, in turn, sets off alarm bells for many of its now independent neighbors, who live with the legacy of Russia’s imperial mentality, the political and psychological scars of the Soviet period, and the physical borders created by Stalin — borders that keep territorial disputes festering and populations divided.

Second, Russia’s economic resurgence has made good relations with Russia more important to Europeans than to the United States. Not only do many of our European allies depend on Russian energy, but their economies are increasingly part of a growing, two-way stream of trade and investment. As it is, half of Russia’s foreign trade is with the EU while about 4 percent is with the U.S. The Europeans give a higher priority than we do to tackling challenges connected with environmental and ecological degradation, organized crime and trafficking (both drug and human) from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Given differences within the Western alliance, we have to face a key limitation: Even if we were not overburdened with two wars and a weak economy and lacking public support at home, the United States would have no effective way of responding militarily to the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Thus, Sen. John McCain’s tough talk — “We are all Georgians” — provided only an emotionally satisfying battle cry to audiences at home, while Vice President Dick Cheney cannot deliver on his promise of NATO membership to Georgia because that is opposed by key NATO members. During his visit to Tbilisi, however, Mr. Cheney repeated the pledge to provide significant financial help for rebuilding Georgia — an idea put forward by Sens. Joe Biden and Barack Obama and then picked up by the Bush administration.

This assistance will be most useful, however, only in the context of a new, comprehensive policy toward Russia. Therefore, it now falls to both presidential candidates to shape a firm but realistic policy that will press the Russians to undo some of the damage resulting from their intervention, raise the stakes if Russia attempts similar actions elsewhere in the former Soviet space, salvage our ability to work with Russia on issues of common concern, and prepare for the next shoe to drop in Russian’s re-emergence as a global actor.

These are some of the specific steps that should be taken:

1. We must not accept the dismemberment of Georgia or allow developments inside Georgia to spin out of control. The administration did too little to prevent Georgia’s leadership from falling into the trap of attacking Russian peacekeepers in a sleeping city — even though it knew that fully mobilized Russian units were in striking distance just over the border. Now, we should insist that the Georgian government act responsibly in the shadow of an assertive Russia, by strengthening its political institutions and civil society. The billion dollars in assistance promised by the U.S. government, combined with the amounts likely to be offered by the Europeans, will help stabilize the present situation, but our financial and political assistance should be used to encourage Tbilisi to pursue a firm but nonconfrontational policy toward Moscow.

2. We cannot influence Russian behavior in the near abroad unless we work with our allies, many of whom have very different ideas about how to deal with the Russians. Mr. McCain’s suggestion that Russia be thrown out of the Group of Eight is political theater because most of the Group of Seven countries do not share his enthusiasm for isolating Russia. If we are serious about reform of the G-8, we should be thinking larger, not smaller. The next administration might consider an expanded forum that brings in such dynamic economic actors of the 21st century as China, Brazil and India - a G-10 or G-12 that also preserves opportunities for G-7 consultations when needed.

3. We need to help Europe turn its energy dependency on Russia into an energy policy toward Russia. For the time being, there is no easy way to diversify sources of supply and deliver it to market from the two most abundant available sources, Azerbaijan and especially Iran. It is also questionable when if ever the proposed Nabucco pipeline will be built. Thus, Russian energy will continue to play a critical role in Europe’s economy and a powerful reason for the Europeans to quickly return to “business as usual.” We should also remember, however, that interdependencies between Russia and Europe run both ways - to achieve its ambitious economic goals, Russia relies on the revenues from the sale of oil and gas and on foreign investment and western expertise. Therefore, as energy security moves to the top of the agenda on both sides of the Atlantic, we need to think of the twin goals of American and European independence from foreign energy imports.

4. We should close the gap between our obligations to current NATO members and the capabilities of the alliance to meet existing commitments under Article V. We must enhance our ability to defend countries that are already members of the alliance. In clearly changed circumstances, we should rethink whether present levels of preparation for the protection of the three Baltic States are adequate.

5. After the experience of the last eight years, it may be time to lay off the U.S.-Russian summitry at the top and let the professionals take over for a while. No president has given his counterpart more quality time than George W. Bush, and no president has so little to show for it. In the future, professional diplomats should clarify what we need from Russia and what Russia needs from us. We need to continue to promote policies that reflect our values as well as our interests, but the current practice of presenting the Russians with “shopping lists” of what they “must” or “must not” do has not worked, to put it mildly. Genuine negotiations should replace lecturing.

6. Expect Russia to overreach, but don’t overreact. Russia is undoubtedly counting on the demonstration effect of the invasion of Georgia to keep more vulnerable Central Asian states in line and in the next few months may confound expectations and become less, not more, confrontational in its immediate neighborhood. Europeans may breathe a sigh of relief, but it is not good news if an overly confident Russia will instead seek to expand its influence in areas politically sensitive to the United States, starting with the Western Hemisphere. A newly confident Russia is on the move, but its underlying weaknesses should make us contemplate how we counter each move in terms of its actual threat to U.S. security.

We should never lose sight of the need to cooperate on really important issues (such as making sure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and preventing dangerous materials from falling into the wrong hands), but we also should proceed on the assumption that American and Russian interests will often diverge. To clarify what we can realistically achieve in our relations with Moscow and what we can’t, it would be useful for the next administration to undertake a major strategic assessment of Russian power and the U.S. ability to shape it.

  • Toby T. Gati is a former special assistant to President Clinton for Russia, Ukraine and the Eurasian states and former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.

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