Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

Wounded NATO Grapples with Russia

An arduous balancing act will be required of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she sits down with her NATO counterparts in Brussels on Tuesday to formulate a response to the Russia-Georgia conflict: On the one hand, she'll be looking to crack the whip against Moscow, and push back against Russia's humiliation of a Western ally in the Caucasus; on the other hand, she desperately needs to restore a fraying European consensus, and to rally the continent behind U.S. policy. Never easy at the best of times, accomplishing those tasks in the wake of Russia's game-changing military offensive last week looks more difficult than ever.

In response to Russia's actions in Georgia, both Washington and the Europeans have mustered only rhetoric. On both sides of the Atlantic, now, governments are castigating Russia and demanding that it make good on its promise to withdraw its forces from Georgia, but that apparent consensus can't hide the deep divisions within the Atlantic Alliance over how to respond to a resurgent Russia. "An uncoordinated mess," is how Robin Shepherd, head of the European program at Chatham House, the London-based think tank, described Europe's response to Russia's incursion into Georgia on Aug. 7. "There is complete disunity in the E.U." Not only is the Union's decision making structure inherently unwieldy, but there is a sharp political division evident between countries formerly occupied by the Soviet Union, backed by Britain and Scandinavia, and Western European powerhouses such as France and Germany — the former more inclined to confront Moscow and demand a tough response; the latter more concerned to restore calm and recognize Russia's centrality to the future economic and security stability of Europe.

The West also needs Moscow's cooperation on issues a lot more serious than Georgia, particularly in resolving the Iran nuclear standoff. "At stake is more than the crisis in the Caucasus — but also whether Russia and the West can share a core base of values to combat terrorism, stop proliferation, and promote energy security," said Brookings Institution analysts Carlos Pascual and Steven Pifer in a 10-point plan of action entitled "Securing Georgia," published on Monday.

The key to managing Russia's resurgence, the authors argue, is expanding communication with Moscow. And Europe will be compelled to play a leading role here, given that the Bush Administration's military aid to, and diplomatic support for, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has rendered it unable to act as an honest broker in the current crisis. Indeed, some European diplomats have expressed irritation over the intense support lent by Washington to Saakashvili in the months preceding the crisis, which many believe may have emboldened the Georgian into making a calamitous mistake by invading South Ossetia. "The U.S. encouraged him without really understanding the nature of the person," says Christopher Langton, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Now, he says, the "E.U. is very uncomfortable with the fact that they have invested quite a lot in bringing Georgia into the E.U. neighborhood."

The diplomatic architecture of the standoff was made clear in the process of brokering a cease-fire. It was left to France and Germany to negotiate cease-fire terms with the Russians; Rice conferred with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and then flew to Tbilisi to make clear to Saakashvili that he had no alternative but to sign a deal he clearly found unpalatable, because the U.S. was unable to bring any leverage to bear on the Russians. Newer E.U. and NATO members such as Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, who have long lived under the shadow of Russian tanks, are likely to share Saakashvili's distaste for the deal brokered by the "Old Europeans". While France and Germany saw reasons to blame both sides for the Georgia debacle, Poland last week rushed to sign a pact with the U.S. to station missile interceptors on its soil, provoking threats of retaliation from Moscow.

Europe is not entirely without leverage. Sarkozy warned on Monday that the E.U. would act in unison against Russian if its troops do not pull out of Georgia. Analysts believe the E.U. could stop negotiations, launched earlier in the summer, over a package of trade agreements between Europe and Russia. "Russia's economic relationship with the West is mostly based on oil and gas, but they want to diversify," says Jan Techau, head of the Europe program for the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. But whether the situation demands escalating confrontation with Moscow will be the subject of intense debate at the NATO huddle on Tuesday.

Russia's action has raised the level of insecurity felt along Europe's eastern edge, and is likely to reinforce support from the member states formerly dominated by the Soviet Union for Georgia and Ukraine to be granted NATO membership — a red-line issue for Russia. France and Germany have urged caution, fearing that both former Russian territories could drag the alliance into conflict with Moscow. While hawkish voices in the U.S. suggest that Russia would have been deterred from attacking Georgia had it and Ukraine been on track for NATO membership, France and Germany see things quite differently. "The current events vindicated the German and French position," Techau says. If Georgia had been a NATO member, the alliance would have been obligated to send troops to back it against Russia. "It would have been disastrous," says Techau.

A key factor defining Europe's response to Russia will be energy: Russia's mammoth oil and gas reserves now provide about one-third of the continent's energy needs. That's an argument for maintaining good relations with Europe, although the counter-argument is that Russia's economy is equally dependent on selling energy to Europe. "We tend to put out this picture of 'Hostage Europe' but it is not a one-way street," says Langton. "If Russia does not get these revenues, then it is in trouble."

Despite the different outlooks on how to respond to the Russian offensive in Georgia, what remains clear is that by acting forcefully to pummel a NATO ally on its own periphery, Moscow has changed the game and created a new reality to which the Atlantic Alliance will have to respond. Russia, in short, has now set NATO's agenda.