Bela Szandelszky/AP
Georgians with their eyes covered sit atop of a Russian armored personnel carrier while
being detained by Russian troops in the Black Sea port city of Poti, western Georgia. (AP)

West Looks to Russia’s Past for Insight into the Future

August 19, 2008 09:36 AM
by Christopher Coats
Even as Russia promises an imminent pullout from Georgia, fears remain that the former Cold War adversary is returning to an expansive approach to foreign policy.

What’s Next for Russia?

With troops still present in several parts of Georgia, U.S. administration officials have stated that no further expansion beyond Russian borders would be accepted, though exact details of what consequences they might face remain unclear.

While arguably the most dramatic and visible event on the world stage, this month’s armed conflict between Georgia and Russia is only the latest in a series of escalations between Russia and the West.

In the years since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has repeatedly expressed its frustration at Western, and especially American, involvement in neighboring former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia.

The U.S. and EU recognition of an independent Kosovo irked the government of Vladimir Putin last year, while efforts to expand NATO to include Albania, Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine sparked anger that the U.S. was attempting to establish a presence in Russia’s backyard.

Georgia has long counted on the support of the United States thanks to a close relationship with the Bush administration due primarily to the country’s troop contributions to Iraq. Before being shuttled home to fight against Russian forces, Georgian forces made up the third largest presence in Iraq behind the United States and Britain.

Although it was not timed to coincide with the increased tensions between Russia and Georgia, a pact to allow the construction of a U.S. sponsored “missile interloper” system in Poland has further strained tensions between Russia and the West.

The system, scheduled for final approval by the Polish parliament this week, sparked the sharpest rebuke from the Russian government. “Poland, by deploying [the system] is exposing itself to a strike—100 percent,” said General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy chief of staff of Russia's armed forces.

Further, Russia has found themselves at odds with what they see as an increasingly over-confident Georgia, especially since the former Soviet state sent troops into the separatist region of Ajaria in 2004.

Making his sentiments clear before leaving his role as president last year, Putin declared Russia’s support of the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the source of this month’s conflicts.

Meanwhile, the United States and much of Europe are now struggling with the challenge of expressing their displeasure with Russia’s new trajectory without creating a possible enemy.

While the Bush administration’s official stance has been one of vocal, if not necessarily military, support for Georgia, a European response has been muted by uncertainty about how best to proceed, with the exception of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who helped initiate the current ceasefire.

For their part, both parties’ candidates have spoken out on Russia’s actions, making it clear that the relationship between the two countries would be a priority regardless of who wins in November.

However, few appear to believe that any measures will stop Russia from moving into the former Soviet states should it be so inclined. “In the short term, none of this is likely to deter Russia from reasserting itself in the Caucasus if it feels inclined to do so,” wrote The Economist this week.

Having already announced that they would not be removing forces from South Ossetia, Russia has hinted that it might offer support for Russians now living in the Crimea region of the Ukraine, signaling further possible expansion beyond their borders.

Background: NATO; Chavez

The debate surrounding the expansion of NATO to include the former Soviet republics of Georgia and the Ukraine appear to be connected to an effort not to anger Russia, whose ties to the West have been strained recently  by international recognition of an independent Kosovo and an effort to expand a missile defense system across Europe.

Worries about Western expansion into former Soviet republics, especially directly neighboring nations, have kept Russia on edge.

Expanding their sights beyond the Eastern bloc, Russia stirred concerns about expansion with a series of meetings with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez earlier this year. A total of $5 billion in arms deals to the South American nation and a number of anti-American comments by Chavez have stoked fears that Russia is moving away from partnerships with the West.

Opinion & Analysis: Russian and European media responses

For their part, the Russian media has been mostly taken aback by any U.S. protest to their country’s actions in Georgia. One of the nation’s largest newspapers, Pravda, took several direct swipes at the Bush administration as they attempted to draw comparisons between Georgia and the U.S. effort in Iraq.

In London, the Guardian’s Max Hastings suggests that old style diplomacy is the only way to quell Russia’s efforts beyond their borders, but that special effort should be taken not to offend the country by reminding them of  “past failures.”

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