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Biden, Georgia, Ukraine and war

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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.

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