Russia relations sure to suffer, but no one knows how much

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 12, 2008 

** EDS NOTE, GRAPHIC CONTENT ** A wounded Georgian woman lies in front of an apartment building, damaged by a Russian air strike, in the northern Georgian town of Gori, on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008. Fighting raged in breakaway South Ossetia for a second day Saturday as Russia sent hundreds of troops into the separatist province, threatening to bomb more Georgian military bases to stop the bloodshed Moscow said has claimed 1,500 lives. Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, launched a major offensive Friday to retake control of separatist South Ossetia. Russia, which has close ties to the province and posts peacekeepers there to protect citizens with Russian citizenship, responded by sending in armed convoys. (AP Photo/George Abdaladze)

WASHINGTON — Russia's invasion of Georgia has plunged relations with the United States to their iciest point since the Cold War, but just how deep the chill will go depends on whether Moscow turns its tanks around or sends them into Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, to oust the country's pro-Western government, U.S. officials and analysts said Tuesday.

"It is very important now that all parties cease fire," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "The Georgians have agreed to a ceasefire. The Russians need to stop their military operations as they have apparently said that they will."

Rice spoke after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a halt to the Russian onslaught launched after Georgia's now badly mauled army tried last week to take control of the Moscow-backed secessionist province of South Ossetia.

But the sides traded charges of ceasefire violations and Medvedev warned that any "hotbed of resistance" would be "destroyed." Moreover, with Russian forces sitting within striking distance of Tbilisi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili should leave office.

Many experts agreed that the invasion has dealt a serious blow to relations between Moscow, which appears bent on stopping Saakashvili from leading Georgia into NATO, and the United States and the European Union.

"Everyone is just shocked that Russia invaded another country," said Michael McFaul of Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "Multi-million dollar investors are worried about risk (and) people are a little more nervous about cooperative endeavors with Russia."

There's also concern that Russia, stoked by its military success in Georgia, could move to re-exert its influence on other parts of its former empire, including Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians seek reunion with their motherland.

"We're already on a slippery slope," said McFaul. "They (Russian leaders) are thrilled with what's happening now. They are demonstrating that when push comes to shove, they can push and shove, and we can't. They believe they can dominate this region."

But the extent of the damage won't be known until Moscow makes clear whether it will cooperate in a European-led peace initiative or continue its offensive.

Moreover, the United States needs Russia's help on a range of issues, from tightening U.N. sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment work to ensuring that North Korea abides by an agreement to eliminate its nuclear weapons program.

Russia and the United States also work closely on counter-terrorism, and Moscow's influence is also required on a host of other issues, from the Middle East peace process and ending the war in Iraq to halting the proliferation of materials useful in producing biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

"There is no question that the Bush administration will want to . . . express it's disapproval and to downgrade the relationship," said Charles Kupchan, a former White House advisor on European affairs now with the Council on Foreign Relations. "But at the same time, the United States doesn't want to shoot itself in the foot."

To prove that point, the measures the United States and its European allies are considering to drive home their anger over the assault are largely symbolic.

In a first step, the 26-nation NATO alliance Tuesday reiterated its "very strong" support for Georgia, announced that the former Soviet republic remained on track for membership, and denounced Russia's "excessive, disproportionate use of force."

Other punitive measures could include cancellation of a decade-old NATO-Russia naval exercise set to begin Friday, Russia's ouster from the G8, a group of the world's wealthiest nations, and a revocation of an invitation to join a prestigious European economic policy organization, U.S. officials said.

The Bush administration and the European Union also are likely to downgrade diplomatic contacts with Moscow.

The measures, however, reflect the lack of Western leverage over Russia, which has become emboldened by its oil and gas wealth — it has the world's largest natural gas reserves and is the second largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia — and control over energy transmission systems and supplies on which Europe depends.

The United States and the European Union are likely to take tougher stands if Russia fails to pull its forces out of Georgia or renew hostilities.

"If the Russians continue to be bloody minded, I think we are in for a very bad time," said James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. "We are not going to have another Cold War (but) we are going to have a very tense relationship."

U.S. officials have not spelled out the consequences of a renewed Russian offensive.

But experts said the United States could pursue punitive economic steps, strengthen the military capabilities of the former Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe that joined NATO, and press harder for admission to NATO of Ukraine, a step that Moscow vigorously opposes.

The United States could also accelerate, over Moscow's objections, the construction of missile defense facilities planned for Poland and the Czech Republic.

Yet there are significant risks in such steps, experts said, including a sharper competition for global resources and influence, especially in energy-rich Central Asia, which, like Georgia, was part of the Soviet Union.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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