Biden, Georgia, Ukraine and war

July 21, 2009

Officially, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Ukraine and Georgia this week to balance President Barack Obama’s warming relations with Russia and reassure Kiev and Tbilisi that Washington still supports their aspirations to join NATO (but in slow motion, please). Unofficially, his mission is to try to prevent another war in an unstable region that Russia regards as its backyard.

If that sounds over-dramatic, it’s not because hostilities look imminent in either country. Georgia is licking its wounds from last year’s August war over South Ossetia. Ukraine is mired in domestic power struggles ahead of a presidential election next January. And Moscow, while determined to reassert its influence in the former Soviet republics, has enough on its hands with the severe economic fallout from the financial crisis. A major Russian military exercise in the region was well flagged in advance and passed off without leaving raised troop levels or unusual military activity. 

The European Union monitoring mission deployed in Georgia after the conflict to build confidence reports that the situation on the boundaries of the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is broadly calm, with regular talks and a hotline between the Russian command and the EU team used to defuse occasional incidents. The Georgian government has agreed with the EU to limit the activities of its army and police force in the area, while the Russians have replaced troops in South Ossetia with professional border guards. That reduces the risk of an incident over smuggling or stray cattle escalating into armed conflict. Georgia wants to involve the United States in the monitoring mission.

The EU has also diplomatically delayed the publication of a report it is compiling on the origins of the war until after next month’s first anniversary.

However, both Moscow and Tbilisi consider there is unfinished business. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin does not hide his desire to get rid of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and reverse the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine that overthrew post-Soviet rulers more pliant towards the Kremlin. Saakashvili is not resigned to the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, nor to an indefinite wait for NATO membership. In Ukraine, there is the slow-burning fuse of a 2017 deadline for the closure of Russia’s main Black Sea naval base in the Crimea, and the status of the Russian-speaking majority in that region, some of whom have been given Russian passports. And there are frequent disputes over Russian gas supplies.

Biden, a forthright but seasoned foreign policy specialist, has a delicate task to calibrate his public and private messages in Kiev and Tbilisi. The Obama administration has put the explosive issue of Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership on the back-burner, recognising that it is a red rag to Russia and deeply divisive in the alliance (as well as in Ukraine). Washington neo-conservatives view this as appeasement, but it is common sense. 

Biden needs to  reaffirm the West’s commitment to the territorial integrity and political support for democracy in both countries, while privately urging Saakashvili to focus on democratic governance reforms at home (which the president anticipated in a broadcast on Monday) and avoid provocations with the Russians. The Vice President needs to privately tell Ukraine’s divided leaders that their feuding and failure to tackle corruption are doing more to destroy their country’s prospects than any Kremlin-backed destabilisation.

That leaves some hard strategic questions unanswered. What would Washington do if an incident in Abkhazia or South Ossetia rekindled armed conflict between Russia and Georgia? How would the United States and the EU respond if unrest erupted in another potential flashpoint, such as Moldova, after a fiercely contested parliament election on July 29? What could the West do if Russia stepped up issuing passports to Russian-speakers in Crimea?

The Obama administration may have chosen to emphasise common ground and mutual interests such as nuclear arms control in improving relations with Russia, but the contest over what Moscow calls its “near abroad” is far from over.


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