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Georgia Crisis Revealed the West’s Limited Leverage With Russia


The war between Russia and Georgia lasted only about a week in early August, but it took another two months for Russian troops to pull back from their forward buffer positions inside Georgia and to this day Russian soldiers remain in the breakaway Georgian enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- despite harsh condemnation and strong pressure from the West to withdraw. Europe and the United States have lent their strong support to Georgia and have pledged large sums of money to help rebuild its damaged military and infrastructure, but the August conflict also revealed the West’s limited leverage with Moscow.

When US President George Bush threw America’s full support behind Georgia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dismissive and is reported to have said that Washington needs to choose between its “virtual project” in Georgia and real partnership, referring to Russia.

Russia’s actions in Georgia have raised concern throughout Europe and have drawn warnings from major capitals, including London. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Russia’s actions amounted to blatant aggression. “The sight of Russian tanks rolling into parts of a sovereign country on its neighboring border will have brought a chill down the spine of many people,” said Miliband who likened the action to the Cold War way of doing business. He said there was never a doubt that Russia could easily defeat the small Georgian army, but warned that Russia needs to let got of the old Soviet ways. “It’s not in Russia’s interest to continue to hanker after a Soviet past, because it’s gone and it’s good that it’s gone,” Miliband said.

Throughout the crisis there were dire warnings about Moscow’s longer-term implications for its relations with the West.

Russia’s vehement response in Georgia and the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia is widely seen as symptomatic of Russian grievances over western actions. These include the expansion eastward of NATO and the European Union into what was once the Soviet sphere of influence, American plans for a missile defense system in eastern Europe and western support for the independence of Kosovo from Russian ally Serbia.

Georgia wants to join both the EU and NATO and some argue that had Georgia been accepted into NATO, this conflict would not have occurred. Not so, said former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind – “The United States, Britain, France, Germany are not going to go to war with Russia over South Ossetia, no matter how sympathetic we might be to the people of Georgia,” said Rifkind – adding, “We’re sympathetic to Tibet, we’re sympathetic to Zimbabwe. We don’t contemplate military solutions.” Rifkind said NATO membership for Georgia is not the answer.

The Georgian conflict has shown a resurgent Russia ready to use harsh power politics to advance its aims and Europe was not able to put up a united front against it, says Michael Denison of London’s Chatham House research center. “You look at the UK and the US, not directly dependent on Russian energy – willing and able to take a sharper line with Russia,” says Denison. He says Eastern Europe with its old fears of Moscow’s domination also took a harsher stance. But, says Denison, not so Europe’s central belt, “Germany, Italy, France, all of whom have look to cut bilateral deals, looked to accommodate Russia.”

Denison says he doesn’t see Europe able to forge a unified, combined response to Russia and a common energy security plan to get out from under its dependence on Russian energy – at least not in the near future.

So, the West’s leverage is limited. But many say what is likely to be the first fallout from the Georgian crisis will be a definite cooling of relations with Russia – maybe not to old Cold War levels, but a cooling all the same.