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Analysis & Opinion
04.05.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: A Quid Pro Quo Strategy
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan S. Burger, James Jatras, Anthony T. Salvia

It appears that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has found an ingenuous answer to both the speedy recognition of Kosovo’s independence by major Western powers, and the U.S. and East European drive to get Ukraine and Georgia into NATO despite Russian objections.

The answer lies in Russia’s new policies toward Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Recent Russian motions indicate that Moscow is going to treat these unrecognized entities in almost exactly the same way the West treated Kosovo – emphasizing and projecting the inevitability of their future independence from Georgia.

Two weeks ago, Putin signed a decree establishing legal ties with the governments of the two unrecognized republics, as well as recognizing their legal entities. The decree also increased Russia’s humanitarian and economic assistance to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while an earlier decision had lifted all economic sanctions against the two.

Although short of formal recognition, the moves signal that Russia no longer perceives the two territories to be under Georgian jurisdiction, and that Moscow is not expecting them to return to Georgia’s control any time soon, if ever.

This creates a situation where Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s further evolution would depend solely on their ties with Russia, drawing them into the Russian economic and legal space, which would make reunification with Georgia untenable. Moscow is signaling to Abkhazia and South Ossetia that their independence, or future incorporation into Russia, is all but inevitable. Today, Russia is prepared to treat them like it does Taiwan, granting everything but formal recognition of independence.

Russia is not pushing the “Kosovo precedent” here, since it has no interest in other “independence by fiat” scenarios anywhere else in the world. Russia’s position is actually more generous toward Georgia than the one the West afforded Serbia, which would have been happy to see the Kosovo situation develop along Taiwanese lines – independence de facto, ambiguity about sovereignty de jure. Simultaneously, Moscow embarked on a major “tie boosting exercise” with Georgia itself, lifting all sorts of economic sanctions imposed in 2006.

As a tactic to “raise the price” of Western policies that Russia strongly opposes (like continued NATO expansion), the latest actions seem like an ideal move – effective, highly visible (notice the Western denunciations of Moscow’s moves with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and low-cost (Russia has not done anything that might trigger Western sanctions).

In all practical reality, Putin’s decision puts Georgia at a crossroads. The latter may continue to pursue membership in NATO, but is more likely to secure one with just half the territory. Or it can abandon its drive toward NATO, and see Russia helping it secure a settlement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the way it started helping Moldova reach a settlement with Transdenstr, after Moldova’s President Vladimir Voronin publicly renounced any plans to join NATO. The signal for Ukraine is also clear – stay out of NATO, or else.

This situation gives Georgian leadership a powerful incentive to escalate the conflict, and to provoke Russia’s military response. This tactic was on display last week, when Georgia deliberately sent a reconnaissance drone into Abkhazia’s air space, and sought to blame Russia for shooting it down. Tbilisi’s actions, however, may have only strengthened the arguments of those within NATO who believe that the Alliance should not rush to assume responsibility for Georgia’s security.

Will Putin’s strategy succeed? Will the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia become inevitable? Will this deter the West from rushing to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO? Will Tbilisi really decide to escalate the conflict? Will Putin’s latest moves increase or undermine stability in Europe?

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James George Jatras, Principal, Squire Sanders Public Advocacy, LLC and Director, American Council for Kosovo, Washington:

It is a mistake to describe Moscow’s strengthening of ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a step toward independence, or to compare the move with Washington’s Kosovo misadventure. Indeed, the two regions in the Caucasus -- which, unlike Kosovo, at least have a legal claim to independence -- are useful levers to step up pressure on Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime and, hopefully, can act as catalysts for its removal in the near future. As stated officially, Moscow has every right to help assure the welfare of its citizens. But the clear Russian position worldwide is that no illegal, unilateral secessions can be legitimate. It is precisely that principled and consistent stand that has contributed in a major way to the miserable failure of the U.S.-led effort to secure Kosovo’s independence.

It cannot be said too many times: there is no Kosovo independence which Moscow needs to balance elsewhere. The February “independence” declaration simply created a confused “frozen conflict” that will grind on for some time. After more than two months, Kosovo’s foreign recognition, boldly predicted by the Albanian separatists and their foreign masters to immediately include 100 countries, has only reached 38, and the pace has slowed to a pathetic crawl. There had been no new recognitions for about three weeks, until the mighty Marshall Islands (with a population of 63,000, entirely dependent on U.S. aid) took the plunge, followed by the formidable Nauru (some 14,000 people, entirely dependent on Australian aid). Even dubious entities like Western Sahara (a member of the African Union, with around 47 recognitions) and the “State of Palestine" declared by the PLO in 1988 (a Permanent Observer at the United Nations, with over 100 recognitions) are better off than that. It is undeniable that Kosovo is no state at all and never will be.

Moscow has refused to allow the UN to slink out of Kosovo and turn its functions over to an illegal European Union mission. The province’s Serbian enclaves remain outside of the criminal and terrorist administration’s control in Pristina. Overworked in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington cannot, by itself, take action to impose the Albanians’ “authority” over the Serbs by force. Our European allies are hardly likely to help the United States to start a new Balkan war. Already feeling burned at having been hoodwinked into buying this dog, there is a growing number of indications that they’re looking for a way out.

In short, even without a coherent government in Belgrade, Serbia is winning. The Kosovo project is being exposed as the fraud it always was. Once there is a new, unified, national-minded government in Serbia after the May 11 election, a plan can be implemented, in coordination with Russia, to strangle this monster in the cradle over the medium term, and to find a new solution.

The Taiwan model is not a useful comparison. Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, including a solid majority on the island, agree that there’s only one China, and Taiwan is a part of China. There has only been disagreement over determining which government is legitimate, the one in Beijing or the one in Taipei. By contrast, Kosovo Albanians do not agree that they are part of Serbia, and they sure don’t claim to be the government of all of Serbia. Belgrade has made constructive suggestions along the lines of the ?land Islands and Hong Kong models, but these will not be viable until the realization sinks in that statehood is not an option, and the Albanians’ foreign sponsors, without whom they are powerless, force them into new negotiations.

The looming and humiliating failure of Washington’s Kosovo policy stands in sharp contrast to Moscow’s advantageous position in the Caucasus, which perhaps will also outline the way forward for Transdnestr and Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow should consider the attractions not of a pointless tit-for-tat, but of an opportunity to have its cake in Kosovo and eat it in the Caucasus, too.

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Anthony T. Salvia, Special Advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Reagan Administration:

Russia’s recent moves in the Caucasus are clearly intended to dissuade Georgia from accepting NATO membership: accept it, and you’ll get partitioned. By the same token, they are intended to dissuade NATO from offering membership in the first place. Does it make sense for NATO to extend a nuclear guarantee to a small, remote nation beset by bitter ethnic divisions, strong separatist movements, dubious democratic institutions, and tense relations with a nuclear-armed Russia? Yet the Western leadership is marked more by a missionary zeal to hasten the global liberal apotheosis than by such quaint, old-fashioned leadership qualities as prudence, wisdom and restraint. Washington seems willing to run lots of risks these days, which prudent statesmen from Washington to Eisenhower to Reagan would have dismissed as not worth the potential calamity.

While Russia’s moves make lots of sense from Moscow’s point of view, they contain a hidden danger: Washington and Tbilisi could well call Moscow's bluff. Yes, Georgia would then be partitioned, but why not, if this makes things easier for Pentagon war planners? Moreover, the Czechs don't seem to miss the Slovaks, and the feeling appears to be mutual. Shorn of its troublesome provinces, Georgia would know domestic peace and tranquility for the first time in decades, and would quickly adjust to living life as America's most-favored-satellite. Surely, the United States would lose little time in drawing up plans for a Caucasian Camp Bondsteel, the better to affect the revolutionary transformation of the Middle East and Central Asia (and of the Caucasus and Russia, as well). Western ambitions are boundless, as long as China is willing to lend it the money to pay for them.

All of this would be bad enough for Russia; worse would be the fact that Russia would have acceded to the notion that ethnic separatism is an acceptable thing. This would, of course, undermine Moscow’s principled stand in opposition to the partition of Serbia, and undercut its effort to maintain domestic unity.

The trick for Moscow is to keep the region on edge about possible partition and open conflict with Georgia, without crossing any lines irrevocably, combined with finding other ways to dissuade the West from indulging its taste for adventurism. This can and should include efforts to provide serious military assistance to Serbia and to Serbs in Kosovo.

It is sad to see Christian and Eastern Orthodox nations at loggerheads, when they all face similar threats from a resurgent Islam. U.S. efforts to affect the revolutionary transformation of the Middle East have so far yielded a string of victories for radical Islam--exactly the opposite of the stated goal of policy. Time has come to take a different approach. It’s time to quit worshipping the golden calf of democracy, seeking to drive wedges between various parts of Europe (something Moscow is often accused of, but a practice far more typical of U.S. foreign policy), and playing antiquated geo-strategic games of encirclement and counter-encirclement. Instead, a new Northern Alliance (to borrow Srdja Triflovich's concept) should be formed for the salvation of European civilization based on the moral, intellectual and cultural heritage of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem. Dmitry Medvedev could do worse than to make this effort the centerpiece of his foreign policy.

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Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.:

It seems that president Putin is overlooking the fact that there is a “seamless” web between Russian foreign and domestic policy objectives. In general, I support the concept of political self-determination (taking into account minority rights and history), since I feel that borders are often arbitrary. Of course, when neighboring countries are involved, the situation can get to be complex both legally and morally. Furthermore, while I can understand Georgia’s and Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, the NATO “umbrella” would be symbolic at best (think about the difficulty that NATO is having reaching agreement about its policy in Afghanistan), and might lead Ukraine and Georgia to reckless foreign policies.

Nonetheless, I regard Putin's de facto recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as unwise. Instead, I think Russia should bring up its concerns with respect to both territories within the context of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to ensure protection for non-Georgian populations there (and for ethnic Serbs in Kosovo).

Last week, the Financial Times published a story about the decline in Russian oil output. While this decline might be reversible, with significant investment and perhaps the introduction of Western technology, as there is still untapped oil in Russia that is difficult to reach, in the aftermath of Russneft, TNK-BP, and YUKOS, few Western companies will be eager to participate in such projects. If they did and something went wrong -- those companies’ shareholders would have grounds to take action against the corporate officers and directors, for failure to exercise a sufficient standard of care. In addition, I can’t imagine that any Western corporation could purchase insurance from reliable Western insurance companies (Lloyds, AIG, etc). If Russian companies and individuals are not investing in Russia, why should foreigners?

The Russian leadership should also take into account what is happening with respect to Western public opinion and the Beijing Olympics. Russia needs to be on its “best behavior” both internationally and domestically, or face the potential risk of losing the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. The International Olympic Committee is undergoing an education process as to its mistake in giving this summer’s Olympics to Beijing.

The reaction against the Beijing Olympics is multi-faceted (displeasure with Chinese policies with respect to Sudan and Tibet, as well as the absence of civil liberties and human rights). The companies “sponsoring” this summer's Olympics may regret their decision, and are desperately trying to show the public that they are indeed socially responsible.

Russia needs to tread cautiously and weigh the international consequences of its policies. The year 2014 is far off, and there is certainly enough time to move the games or set up an alternative. The Olympic “movement” is having a hard time justifying its Beijing decision now. It may also have a hard time justifying its decision to hold the winter games in Sochi. It would be a shame for Russia to take all the steps to hold a party only for no one to come. The Russian people have too many unmet needs for the Russian government to waste money on projects that are not essential.


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Professor Stephen Blank, the US Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

There are too many questions here to answer cogently within the scope of this comment. These moves do not enhance European stability, but rather confirm that Russia recognizes neither Ukraine nor Georgia as fully independent states, and is prepared to truncate their sovereignty if they seek to assert it by joining NATO. As for provocations, Russia is hardly lagging behind Georgia, including bombings, drones, attempted coups, and boycotts, so let’s stop worrying exclusively about Georgia’s provocative tactics. Sending a drone over Abkhazia (if indeed Georgia did it) hardly compares to Moscow’s record.

Russian policies may temporarily persuade some Europeans to exclude Georgia, Ukraine or both from NATO. But the fact remains that Russia’s arguments are not credible. Will Moscow go to war to stop this development? It’s quite unlikely. Will it cease cooperation with Europe? Also quite unlikely, unless it wants to forego all the economic benefits that its economy and elites depend upon. Will it revise its military policy? Perhaps, but NATO has expanded thrice, and Russia’s security has not diminished, unless NATO is perceived as an aggressive enemy -- hardly a credible assertion, since Russia has suspended its participation in the CFE Treaty, indicating the absence of a perceived threat.

Ultimately, the Russian elite cannot stand the fact that former Soviet republics want to act independently, and to end the imperial mystique that still drives Putin and his team. Moscow is now trying to enforce a Leonid Brezhnev doctrine for former Soviet republics, but I doubt that it can or will use force against nonexistent threats, or that Georgia will be foolish enough, or so unrestrained by the West, that it will provoke a war. After all, it is Moscow that is threatening to use force and break up sovereign states in Europe.

If anything, it is Russia’s behavior that has given Europe, as well as the United States, the real grounds for expanding NATO. Russian revisionism, tied to the regression towards a neo-Tsarist autocracy at home, ultimately cannot exist without the presupposition of a Western enemy, or within the framework of the post-1991 status quo. What is at stake for Moscow in this expansion is not Russia’s security, but the security of its ruling elite. The latter is a rather different concept, and one that in fact puts the country’s security at constant risk, as we can see from Russia’s behavior in world politics.
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