The European Union is struggling to find a common position on Russia -- as is the rest of the West. But so far, diplomatic bluster has been the name of the game. What should the world do about Russia's new-found bravado?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel loves the Russians. When she goes on vacation, she likes to have one with her, preferably a big thick novel by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. She also loves Russian, and back in the former East Germany, Merkel learned the language so well that she won a Russian contest. One of her favorite words is “terpeniye,” which she translates as “the ability to suffer.”
Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev at a military parade in Moscow in May.
Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev at a military parade in Moscow in May.
Love and suffering. Currently, the chancellor is feeling a bit of both, at least that is what she said last week during a visit to Estonia. Despite all the suffering connected with the latest outbreak of Russian imperialism in Georgia, she said that we should not forget that there are reasons to love Russia. She also said that if Russia were to send its military into Estonia, the country would be covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, meaning that an armed attack against one NATO member is considered an attack against them all. Were that to ever happen, it would be the second time that this article was invoked, the first time being when the alliance offered its assistance to the US after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. War, of course, would be the result.
It was a clear warning to Russia, and one that fit perfectly into the tense atmosphere of last week. It was a week that seemed more diplomatically charged than any in a long time. Moscow has the world on tenterhooks.
The list of geopolitical provocations is long. Russia decided to recognize the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Not long later, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov lashed out at each other. Mistrust was the dominant mood. Did the Americans help spark the war in Georgia? Did Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili lie to the world about the sequence of events during the war? Is he perhaps even a war criminal? Will Russia further extend its power over its neighbors?
These are the kinds of questions that the world has been grappling with, and nobody has any idea how to defuse the tense atmosphere. Nobody has a solution to the problems.
One thing is certain: Russia is spoiling for a fight and the Russians are standing shoulder to shoulder. On the other side stands a group of countries, most of which stood side-by-side during the Cold War under the label “the West."
But now it appears that this “West” does not even exist, at least not as a united political front. Just when these countries should be sticking together to put Russia in its place, they appear to be a frayed and disjointed community.
“When I want to call Europe, what number do I dial?” Henry Kissinger once asked while he was serving as US Secretary of State. Today, the same question could even more appropriately be asked of the West. Its phone is not in Washington, and certainly not in Brussels, where on Monday this week the heads of state and government in the EU are meeting to discuss the Georgian crisis. A show of unwavering unity is not expected to emerge from this meeting, but there is some good news: the German-French diplomatic machine is up and running again. The crisis has welded the governments of both countries together. All the irritations of the recent past have been forgotten and replaced by harmony between Paris and Berlin.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, closely coordinated the preparations for the special summit with Merkel: phone calls at all levels, no effort spared to find a common position, lavish praise on all sides.
Meanwhile, various ministries in Berlin have started to doubt the credibility of the most problematic friend of the West. Saakashvili, contrary to his own version of events, apparently ordered the attack on South Ossetia before the Russian tanks entered the province from the north via the Roki Tunnel.
'Carelessly Playing with Fire'
This was reported by military observers working with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who were in Georgia at the time. Information from tapped phone conversations involving Georgian political leaders may have also made its way into the reports, which have been leaked from OSCE headquarters in Vienna. One source who is personally familiar with the reports summarized the findings as follows: “Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.”
Just last week, the Georgian president told Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper: “We respected the cease-fire. It wasn’t until the Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia that we deployed our artillery.” The OSCE reports also indicate that Saakashvili attacked the civilian population while they were asleep in their beds. That could be tantamount to a war crime. “Our dialogue with Georgia has to become more critical again,” says a top Western diplomat.
Merkel and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier still agree that Germany should play a moderate role: sending critical messages to Russia, solidarity with Georgia, but, all in all, working to defuse the situation. Some people have been “carelessly playing with fire,” said Steinmeier, referring to “all sides” involved. His criticism included the Americans and the Eastern Europeans.
Germany would rather not act as an intermediary between the West and Russia, primarily because the Germans are in the Western camp, but Merkel and Steinmeier also want to maintain their good connections with Moscow in order to have an influence on the Russians.
But that could prove to be difficult. Although the chancellor phoned Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week to voice her criticism of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, she did not know if she was speaking with the man who really pulls the strings.
Russia’s strongman these days is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who Merkel knows well. However, she is not allowed to talk with him about foreign policy issues because in Russia it is the president who is officially responsible for this area. Diplomacy can be extremely complicated.
No Position to Lead
Merkel faces her next difficult phone call this week. After the EU summit, she is due to call US President George W. Bush to pitch the European line on Russia, assuming there will be one. During the Cold War this would have been a call to the leading Western power. But these days the US is in no position to play a leading role.
Last weekend, Democratic delegates in Denver nominated Barack Obama by acclamation as the first ever African-American presidential candidate. Hundreds of supporters in the hall cried tears of joy -- American presidential campaigns are seldom marked by such euphoria. But the world outside the Pepsi Center looked very different. The same Democrats who minutes earlier had been waving their flags now stood outside with a worried expression on their faces. Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright didn’t even try to be optimistic. Trouble is brewing around the world for the US, they said.
Then the diplomats started listing America’s woes. They said that the country’s dependency on foreign oil is dramatic. Every year America pays $600 billion (€400 billion) to oil producing countries. On top of that, there is China’s economic rise, two bogged-down foreign wars, and now Russia has made its return to the international stage, loudly and aggressively, like a throwback to the days of the Soviet Union. “The Russians have crossed the red line,” says Albright. All in all, said Holbrooke, this adds up to the worst foreign-policy position to be inherited by an incoming president since the Civil War.
It is not, of course, a situation that US Vice President Dick Cheney will have to concern himself with. He is due to retire soon, but Cheney is personally responsible for much of the political inheritance that goes to the next president. This Tuesday, Cheney is scheduled to travel to Georgia to show his solidarity with this frontline country. Russia’s aggression must not go unanswered, he said shortly before his departure. Observers in Washington suspect that he may have helped provoke the conflict that he now claims to be solving. One of his most experienced advisors, Joseph R. Wood, was in Tbilisi shortly before the Georgian army launched its military operation.
This was only confirmed by Cheney’s office last week. Government sources say that after the conflict erupted, Cheney urged the White House to respond by sending arms to Georgia. The president reportedly rejected the proposal, perhaps after a bit of arm-twisting. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are determined not to send the military to yet another country in the five remaining months of the Bush administration.
Rumors are currently circulating in the US that Cheney may have sparked the crisis in Georgia as a favor to the Republican presidential candidate. There is a wealth of evidence to support such a theory. McCain’s foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann was a lobbyist for the Georgian government until last May. McCain is a close friend of Saakashvili. If the OSCE allegations concerning Georgia’s war plans are substantiated, it could fuel debate on the issue. In the meantime, an election campaign conducted in the shadow of an international crisis offers McCain a golden opportunity. In the hour of peril, experience is likely to garner more votes than hope. Putin has triggered what McCain urgently needs: a sense of anxiety.
Western Chauvanism and EU Indecision
And McCain is seizing this opportunity. His war cry is: “We are all Georgians.” Suddenly, he is no longer ruling out the deployment of NATO troops, “if they are required.”
Last Wednesday, McCain sent his wife Cindy as a personal ambassador to the Georgian capital. He has accused his Democratic opponent of being soft on the Russians -- a position that allowed him to score points on two fronts. He has honed his image as a new Cold Warrior, and Obama has slipped back three or four percentage points in all the opinion polls since the Russians invaded Georgia.
McCain’s tough talk has set the tone of the campaign. Obama is pushing -- as is the incumbent President Bush -- for the former Soviet republic to be accepted into NATO and for the missile defense shield to be installed in Poland to intercept Iranian rockets. Obama’s foreign policy advisor Susan Rice says that when it comes to Putin, there is no alternative to Bush’s policies.
All of the leading foreign policy experts among the Democrats are pushing for NATO to end its cooperation with Russia -- from Ambassador Holbrooke to former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Senator John Kerry, to President Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. They want to exclude Russia from G-8 summits and block the country’s bid to become a member of the World Trade Organization.
The result has been a rapidly growing cycle of threats and counter-threats that could quickly spiral out of control. “It is amazing how Wilhelmistic chauvinism has infected nearly everyone in Washington,” says sociologist Norman Birnbaum of Georgetown University, referring to the blind enthusiasm for military glory of the Kaiser period in Germany.
Failed to Pacify
The crisis with Russia comes at a time when US foreign policy is plagued by uncertainty. Bush, the warrior, is powerless to act. He commands the largest military machine in the world, and yet no major breakthrough has been achieved in Iraq or Afghanistan. America has occupied these countries, but failed to pacify them.
Bush doesn’t dare open up another military front. In private he was recently asked by a foreign visitor if the military option in Iran really was viable in his opinion, as he emphatically maintains in public. But Bush made a dismissive gesture and said: “You cannot bomb knowledge.”
For their part, the Democrats are uncertain if their much praised power of diplomacy will really be enough to solve world conflicts. Obama says in public that he would seek unconditional talks with the anti-American rulers. However, in confidential talks with Western heads of government -- such as during his recent trip to Europe -- he tends to take a tougher stance. When meeting with Merkel, he did not rule out the possibility, were he to become commander-in-chief, that he would order the US military to carry out strikes against nuclear facilities. An aide to the chancellor later said that Merkel was shocked by Obama’s statement.
On the other hand, the Americans are frustrated with Germany and other Western countries -- with their fear of aggression and radical solutions. The result, so far, has been gridlock and a Western inability to come up with a common position when it comes to Russia and Georgia.
They could not even decide on a common figure. The Americans and the British wanted the foreign ministers of the so-called G-7 group of leading industrialized nations to issue a joint declaration on Russia. It proved a controversial proposal. For the last 10 years, the G-7 has been the G-8 -- Germany, France, the UK, Italy, the US, Japan and Canada, plus Russia.
The Germans and the French strongly objected to the idea of reactivating the old G-7. Berlin argued that a declaration by the Group of Seven would de facto exclude the eighth partner. But the Americans were persistent. There were three phone conferences, and they once even called for an actual meeting. On Wednesday, Paris and Berlin very reluctantly relented. The German foreign office released a joint declaration that the Seven “condemn the actions of our G-8 partner.” But the foreign office neglected to mention that the communiqué was written by the G-7.
Even within the EU it is difficult to agree on a strong joint position. Much of the indecision comes out of the fact that the West -- particularly its European manifestation -- has grown. A number of former Warsaw Pact countries are now a part of the European Union, including the Baltic States, Poland and the Czech Republic. The threat they feel is much different than that felt by countries like Italy and Belgium. They wonder if their new allies would be prepared to die for Tallinn or Prague if the Russians were to march in. They tend to trust the Americans more in this regard -- leading to the fact that the Eastern Europeans generally support the positions of the US over those held by the other Europeans.
Huge Rifts Emerged
At the meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels on Thursday, the positions of the hardliners and moderates clashed. They quickly agreed that they had to reach an agreement and decided to provide massive aid for poor Georgia. It was also clear that the country’s territorial integrity had to be reaffirmed. But as soon as the focus shifted to Russia, huge rifts emerged. The British and Danish representatives called for a suspension of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). There were also calls to suspend the agreement on easing visa regulations for Russia -- a move that would affect Russian businessmen and diplomats, but also schoolchildren and students.
The French did what wise diplomats always do when the going gets tough: They shelved the issue. Paris said that it would wait until this week to issue a proposal for the summit. It is very possible that this will only contain a feasibility study for the foreign ministers who will meet in Avignon at the end of this week.
Back in mid-August, Javier Solana, Europe’s chief diplomat, was assigned the task of assessing plausible options. His 10-page paper is intended to facilitate a decision at the summit. Essentially, Solana sees three options for an active mission: One possibility would be that of reinforcing the OSCE mission in Georgia. Another would be for the EU to send its own observers to Georgia to monitor the cease-fire.
A particularly robust approach that Solana has put forward would be an armed “EU peacekeeping force.” This would of course require a United Nations mandate, and thus the approval of all parties concerned, including the Russians. And, it is extremely unlikely. There is no legal basis for it and most EU members are not thrilled about the idea.
What’s more, everyone knows that Moscow has its own options for responding should the West resort to sanctions.
Russia is part of the Middle East Quartet, which continues to mediate the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, Moscow has for years reluctantly done its part in using sanctions against Iran to convince Tehran to halt its nuclear program. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Russia has been collaborating with the West in the fight against terror in Afghanistan. What would happen if the Russians were to suddenly stop cooperating because of the conflict with Georgia?
In September, the UN Security Council will vote on whether to extend the ISAF mandate for the stabilization of Afghanistan. A Russian Njet would eliminate the legal basis of the operation, and the German parliament, the Bundestag, could hardly extend its mission for 3,500 soldiers, let alone boost the number of troops to 4,500 as is currently planned. Russia could make it more difficult to supply the troops in the Hindukush by banning NATO military aircraft from flying over its territory.
Russia's Geopolitical Levers
Moscow could also create difficulties when it comes to Iran. Initial drafts of a new UN resolution by the Security Council are already circulating in Western capitals. If the Russians remain obstinate, years of diplomatic work would be wasted.
It is unlikely that Russia will stop all forms of cooperation from one day to the next. Moscow also has an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan and ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. However, if the conflict escalates, these interests could be outweighed by the desire to trip up its opponents.
In short, Russia is brimming with bravado these days. Last week, the pro-government Izvestiya newspaper reported that the country had again achieved the “status of a superpower.” The “Strategy 2020” designed by Putin and Medvedev to modernize Russia, must now be urgently supplemented “by a military-political element,” says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a leading neo-imperial visionary who is highly respected in the Kremlin -- and also happens to be the grandson of Stalin’s former foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. In concrete terms, Nikonov has called for the arsenal of the Russian army -- which many military experts complain is obsolete -- to be upgraded to a level that matches its greater ambitions.
It is a suggestion that is likely to make many in the region nervous -- like the Ukrainians. Since 1954, the Crimea Peninsula, extending into the Black Sea, has been part of Ukraine. But over half of its population is Russian and the port city of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based, is considered a key part of Moscow's sphere of influence.
This summer Duma foreign policy expert Konstantin Satulin boasted that the Russian fleet will remain in Sevastopol after the agreement under which the Kremlin currently maintains its military presence here runs out in 2017. Satulin, who is close to Putin, also threatened Ukraine with a "powerful popular movement for the unification of the Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia."
Ukraine's request for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) will come up for discussion again at the next NATO meeting in December. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, has prophesied that the Crimea "will not join NATO" and that a "popular uprising" cannot be ruled out. Speaking in Sevastopol on the 225th anniversary of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in May, Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov announced that the future of the city would soon be decided -- "in Russia's favor."
Are these merely threats or are they serious declarations that could lead to a future war? A colonel in the FSB, Russia's domestic secret service and the successor organization to the KGB, expressed alarm last week. A violent conflict between Americans and Russians "on what is currently Ukrainian territory" is "highly probable," he said, adding that if followers of Ukraine's reformist president Viktor Yushchenko continue to insult the Russian inhabitants of the Crimea and defame the Russian Black Sea Fleet then it will be "time to come in and help the Russians living there."
Around 1,500 kilometers to the north of the Crimea, in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, belligerent statements of this kind evoke a distinct sense of fear. In 1939, these Baltic countries were deprived of their independence as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Today they are firmly anchored in Western alliances, but continue to be dependent on Russia for raw materials.
In a joint declaration on the Georgia conflict three weeks ago, the four presidents of the Baltic republics and Poland spoke of a litmus test for the West. Estonian head of state Toomas Hendrik Ilves called for a redefinition of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which obliges members to come to the aid of an ally that has come under attack. The Baltic countries are now on the front line and in need of solidarity, Ilves said. He reminded the alliance that NATO defended West Berlin against the Russians during the Cold War.
Guardian for Energy Suppliers
Close to 400,000 Russians live in Estonia, more than a quarter of the country's overall population. They were last in the headlines in 2007 when, with Moscow's help, they staged street riots after the Estonians moved a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn to a new location.
But indications of renewed Russian influence extend well beyond the borders of the former Soviet empire. More or less subtle intimidation of former Soviet republics is being accompanied by diplomatic efforts on the part of Moscow to forge new alliances around the world aimed at counteracting US dominance. The Kremlin sees control of strategic energy resources as a tool for achieving such an objective.
Just as NATO is putting a military choke-hold on Russia, from the point of view of Moscow, Russia wants to put a choke-hold on the energy-hungry rest of the world through its control of huge gas and oil reserves. It is seeking to open up a new front by forming an alliance with resource-rich countries, pitting energy producers against energy consumers. It is against this backdrop that recent offensives by Gazprom need to be seen -- for instance the offer it made to Moammar Gadhafi to sell Libyan oil and gas at world market prices. Russia currently supplies around a fourth of Europe's natural gas requirement. Every additional percent of the market would increase Moscow's ability to combine political subtext with prices and delivery conditions.
Russia, though, needs its Western customers just as those customers need Siberian oil and gas. Still, Moscow is trying to leverage its fossil fuel reserves by expanding its energy companies abroad and by offering its services as an alternative global gendarme, a kind of guardian for those countries who have not yet been able to fully profit from their resources. Russia is currently in the process of renewing its friendship with Cuba and intensifying its relationship with Venezuela. Iran is also welcome as an energy partner. It can't yet be seen as a new bloc, but it's an indication of how difficult it's going to be for the West to hold its own in the new world order.
Just how serious the relationship with Russia could become was a subject of discussion at the German Foreign Ministry a few months ago. The Russia experts from the planning staff and policy directorate submitted a new scenario paper on Russia to the foreign minister in December last year. Since then it has become a guideline for determining the direction of German policy on Russia.
The core element of the forty-page document is an outline of three possible scenarios for the way Russia could develop along with necessary and feasible responses to them. What this development could mean for relations with Georgia was taken into account in all three options.
The 'Cold Peace'
The best case scenario, referred to as "Russian Davos," would be an "efficient modernization of the country." This would be accompanied by Russia's integration in the global economy and "gradual adoption of European standards such as the rule of law." In an attempt to strengthen ties between Russia and the West "we should avoid putting too much pressure on a Russian reform government, for instance by putting Georgia on track for NATO membership." The EU could well imagine entering into a "strategic union" with a Russia of this kind, the diplomats say.
The second theoretical scenario would be a relationship based on "selective partnership." Ranging "from stability to stagnation," this scenario describes the decline of cooperation into a kind of "confrontational cherry picking" where the two sides cooperate only if and when they feel they stand to gain from it.
The paper emphatically warns against giving Russia the cold shoulder in such a situation. "For reform-minded forces in the Russian establishment, Germany and the EU would be natural partners in a time of need and not the United States or China," the document reads. This kind of partnership would include not pushing for Georgian membership in NATO, since this would weaken the position of reformers and strengthen the position of nationalists in Russia.
The third potential scenario was seen as being the emergence of "an authoritarian and imperialist Russia." It is felt that Europe "would not be able to maintain a strategic partnership with a country of this kind" in the long run. Under this scenario, Foreign Minister Steinmeier's planners felt Russia would be likely to "recognize the independence of or even annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia." The countermeasures considered for such a situation were far-reaching. "The creation of stronger ties between Georgia and Euro-Atlantic institutions would be on the agenda," the paper said, adding that the West would have to counteract "Russian foreign policy audacity" by strengthening the EU and NATO.
Still, Steinmeier's advisers warned against responding by taking measures aimed at further isolating Russia. Instead they recommended making use of limited forms of cooperation "so as to keep a foot in the door." Cooperation would continue, but it would be made clear that Moscow would have to make concessions were the West to continue supplying technology.
In short, the scenario developed by Steinmeier's experts was hardly a friendly one. Indeed, such an authoritarian Russia would see a rise in nationalism. Furthermore, together with China, such an authoritarian path to modernization would put Western-style democracy on the defensive.
Things haven't gotten that bad yet. But Steinmeier's diplomats found a new expression to describe their model. And it is one which fits perfectly in the current situation: "Cold Peace."
By Ralf Beste, Uwe Klussmann and Gabor Steingart