What’s next in the Russia-West crisis over Georgia?
The people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were celebrating on Tuesday after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree recognising the independence of the two regions.
Western leaders responded with harsh words. U.S. President George W. Bush said it increased world tensions and Britain called for “the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia,” where the two regions lie.
But what can the West do to punish Russia or discourage it from any similar acts in the future?
Military action has never been a realistic option since Russia sent tanks and troops to halt Georgia’s assault on South Ossetia. United Nations sanctions are also out of the question because Russia ihas the right of veto on the U.N. Security Council.
Major powers are also reluctant to do anything that might encourage Moscow to withdraw its help with U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme and transit support for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Retaliation could involve Russian membership of the big international clubs: excluding Russia from the Group of Eight (G8) top industrial democracies or blocking its bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
But any action will be carried out with the nagging thought at the back of Western leaders’ minds – Moscow is no longer the economic basket-case of Soviet times and, riding a tide of petrodollars from soaring oil prices, western Europe depends on Russian oil and gas.
Russian leaders have signalled they are not troubled by the Western reaction, partly because the Kremlin sees strong public support at home for its actions in Georgia and in the stand-off with the West, and partly because of the wealth it now has from its natural resources.
When NATO suspended activities with Russia, Moscow responded with a shrug of the shoulders, saying it was also freezing activities with the defence alliance. Moscow also plans to halt visits by senior NATO officials and joint military exercises with the alliance.
The European Union could, in theory, send in peacekeepers or break off talks with Russia over a wide-ranging strategic partnership, or even announce economic sanctions such as curbing existing trade arrangements. Moscow has shown no sign of concern over this – such moves would risk Moscow cutting energy supplies to Europe.
“Nothing scares us, including the prospect of a Cold War, but we don’t want it,” Medvedev said on Monday. “In this situation, everything depends on the position of our partners.”
Does Russia have the upper hand? Perhaps. But despite the talk about a Cold War, there are also reasons to believe it is not about to start and that conflict can be contained.
Moscow’s confidence and strength rests largely on high prices for energy and other natural resources and it is still a far cry from the military force it was in Soviet times. Moscow also no longer controls large swathes of eastern and central Europe and no longer has the huge influence it once enjoyed in other parts of the world. The Kremlin is also likely to be concerned about investment flows into Russia, which ratings agency Fitch says could be affected by the rising tensions.
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister turned Kremlin opponent, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying Moscow’s decision was “one more step towards the self-isolation of the Russian Federation from the international community.”
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov believes isolation is not looming for Russia: “I don’t believe this should really be a doomsday scenario. I believe common sense should prevail.”