By Dr. Abdul, Analyst & Researcher
NATO led by the super power USA, which is ill-focused on Russia and Socialism, largely remains a symbol of unilateralism and considered a serious enough threat by many countries particularly Russia which has openly questioned the legitimacy of such a military organization and slammed its operations around the world. Russia always opposed unilateral actions of US-led Western powers supported by their puppet regimes across the globe. Recent Russo-Georgian fiasco has once again brought the Russo-NATO tensions back to focus.
In August, Georgian forces staged a bid to retake control of the pro-Russian enclave, which separatists have run since the early 1990s, but were crushed by Russia‘s ensuing military response. Moscow agreed to pull its troops back from this part of Georgia to inside the disputed enclaves. A 225-member European Union mission is monitoring the cease-fire, patrolling the former buffer zone around South Ossetia up to its de facto border. Georgia‘s Interior Ministry said 24 October that Russia had deployed 2,000 extra troops in South Ossetia in the past week and was preparing to stir up more trouble in the breakaway region. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the charges. The Kremlin has recognized South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and said it will station 7,600 troops there to provide security — a figure Lavrov repeated. The big test that Western nations are looking at now is the step-by-step implementation of the plan to put in EU police monitors in the buffer zone in Georgia on the border with South Ossetia. But Russia is still resisting the original ceasefire deal that it should withdraw its forces all the way back across the mountains into their pre-conflict positions in southern Russia.
Georgia‘s breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has a long-term aim of uniting with North Ossetia, on Oct 22, approved Aslanbek Bulatsev, a former tax chief in neighboring North Ossetia. Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvil said he was not surprised to hear a Russian official had become South Ossetia‘s prime minister. “For the last few years, the South Ossetian government has been made up exclusively of Russians. This is a continuation of that trend,” he said. “The Russians have been in charge and want to stay in charge. The locals don’t have a voice.”
In the aftermath of the Georgian conflict, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, with view to explicitly make Moscow‘s position clear to the world, has recently laid down five principles that he says will guide Russian foreign policy.
1. Russia recognizes the primacy of the basic principles of international law, which define relations between civilized nations. It is in the framework of these principles, of this concept of international law, that Russia will develop relations with other states.
2. Russia believes the world should be multi-polar. Unipolarity is unacceptable to Moscow, domination is thus impermissible. Medvedev said cannot accept a world order in which all decisions are taken by one country, even such a serious and authoritative country as the United States of America. This kind of world is unstable and fraught with conflict.
3. Russia also does not want confrontation with any country; Russia has no intention of isolating itself. Rather, Moscow would develop, as far as possible, friendly relations both with Europe and with the United State of America, as well as with other countries of the world.
4. Russia’s unquestionable priority is to protect the life and dignity of its citizens, the interest of our business community abroad, wherever they are and, therefore, it will also proceed from this in pursuing its foreign policy. And it should be clear to everyone that if someone makes aggressive forays, he will get a response form Russia.
5. Russia objects to the US-led West to interference in what it calls its sphere of influence. Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions where it has its privileged interests. In these regions, there are countries with which Russians have traditionally had friendly cordial relations, historically special relations. Moscow will work very attentively in these regions and develop these friendly relations with these states, with close neighbors.
The Russian president also stressed the importance for the Kremlin of “priority regions” that bordered on Russia. “Certainly the regions bordering on Russia, but not only them,” he added. And he stated that the future depends not just on us. It also depends on our friends, our partners in the international community. They have a choice now.”
The principles of Russian foreign policy, with their references to “privileged interests” and the protection of Russian citizens, make it amply clear that Russian legitimate interests have to be protected by the West and that would probably seem rather obvious to Russian leaders of the 19th Century leading to world wars. In some ways, Russia is going back to the century before last, with a nationalistic Russia very much looking out for its own interests, but open to co-operation with the outside world on issues where it is willing to be flexible. Russia openly supported USA in Afghanistan and in a limited sense in Iraq.
Implications of National Interests
The new Moscow rules are not a blueprint for a new “Cold War”. Rather, Russian President Medvedev spelt out five principles governing Russian foreign discourse in future stressing the need for multipolarity and centrality of UN. That was a worldwide ideological and economic struggle. This is much more about defending national interests. That was a worldwide ideological and economic struggle. This is much more about defending national interests. These therefore are only the stated principles and in practice many more principles could play roles. They, therefore, have been seen by the West as rather vague.
Russia supports Iran’s nuclear ambitions. President Medvedev’s principles do not, for example, necessarily exclude Russian agreement to continuing the strong diplomatic stance against Iran. And energy contracts are not necessarily threatened. Above all, the Georgia conflict was for Russia, in Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s words, a “long-cherished moment of truth”, which has created a new “clarity”.
In today’s world of unilateralism, the primacy of International Law, on the face of it, sounds encouraging. USA never wants any law to bind them in advancing its global interests at any cost. But Russia signed up to Security Council resolution 1808 in April this year, which reaffirmed “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia”- and has since abandoned that position. It argues that a Georgian attack on South Ossetia on 7/8 August invalidated its commitment and required that it defend its citizens there.
There is a feeling that NATO again needs frontline states to justify its existence. The world is multi-polar means that Russia will not accept the primacy of the USA (or a combination of the US and its allies) in determining world policy. Russia will require that its own interests are taken into account. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was putting down another marker against the extension of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia.
Protecting its citizens is the key phrase here is “wherever they are”. This was the basis on which Russia went to war in South Ossetia and it contains within it the potential for future interventions – over Crimea, for example, populated by a majority Russian-background population yet owned by Ukraine only since 1954. If Ukraine looked set to join NATO, would Russia claim the protection of its “citizens” there.
In the principle of privileged interests, President Medvedev was getting down to the heart of the matter. Russia is particularly demanding its own spheres of influence, as well as control over states on its borders. This has the potential for further conflict if those “interests” are ignored. That Russia does not seek confrontation, again, sounds hopeful, but it is based on the requirement that Russia‘s needs are met first. If the world agrees to its demands, then it is happy to be friends. But if not… therein lies the warning.
Competition of principles
Georgian president Saakashvili has not shifted in his insistence that it was a Russian invasion which had started the conflict over South Ossetia, and Georgia had only acted in response – a view diametrically opposed to Russia‘s reading. Saakashvili says the last thing Georgia wanted was to drive a wedge between Russia and the rest of the world. “We can never outwit Russia with tanks,” he observed, “but we can compete on principles.” But the angry rhetoric has given way to a more seasoned assessment of what happened. “President Dmitry Medvedev has called me a “unhinged” and ‘political corpse’,” he noted wryly, “but this corpse is here at the United Nations, holding talks and having meetings. I think some of these overstatements are counter-productive. There is no alternative to dialog, but this will take time and a change of mentality in the Kremlin.”
Among foreign ministers from Europe in UN General Assembly taking stock of where this summer’s conflict in the Caucasus has left international relations, suspicions of Russia’s motive and concern at what it might do next remain high. Even Bernard Kouchner – the French foreign minister who helped to broker the original ceasefire document which the French president signed with President Medvedev – is not sure where the crisis is heading. “As we did not want to go to war, we had to accept a compromise. They, the Russians, resisted us. It would have been easy for them to go for the Georgian capital and take it. They were strongly prepared. We’ll see if it is a trap – if they do not implement the agreements they signed. Let’s see by the end of October if they really do dismantle checkpoints,” said Kouchner.
Russia questions the legitimacy for NATO when UNSC could do the same job legally. For Russia NATO constitutes an international anomaly outside the UN as it is being used by the USA and it spreads terrorism. USA has tried all tricks to justify the existence of NATO, possibly including the Sept 11 to showcase the need to combat “new threats”.
The West puts a few questions: how concerned should the West be? Could the current tensions really degenerate into a new Cold War or even violent confrontation? Should the West we be scared of Russia?
The western commentators seek to uncover the current Russian mood -speaking to people living in the country’s vibrant capital of Moscow, to its rural poor, and to ethnic Russians who, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, find themselves living outside of the motherland. And in doing finds that far from seeing themselves as aggressors, the majority of Russians say that in fact it is Russia which is under attack.
The Russians are educated, sophisticated and travel abroad, complain that the West doesn’t understand Russia, a feeling which goes all the way up to the highest echelons of power. Fueling the idea of a Russia under siege is the belief that the West is trying to encircle the country, particularly through US plans for a European-based missile defense shield and the eastward expansion of NATO, which has seen both Georgia and Ukraine promised membership. Many point to a flash-point of Russian concern over NATO’s eastward shift, the Crimean port city of Sevastopol – a little piece of Russia, sitting on the Ukrainian coast.
Despite being in Ukraine, Sevastopol is still home to Russia‘s Black Sea Fleet and has been so for more than 200 years. But there is a problem – Russia only leases its base from the Ukrainian government and the lease runs out in 2017. The tensions are real in the city, where the majority of the population view themselves as Russia – even if they lack Russian citizenship – and talks to Russian nationalists who say they will fight to keep the fleet in Crimea and Ukraine out of NATO.
In Russia Vladimir Putin is still riding high in the polls. In the West, Putin is vilified as a thuggish bully, surrounded by a cadre of fellow ex-KGB agents who, like him, have little concern for human rights. But, despite crushing opposition voices, canceling regional elections and clamping down on the media, a staggering 90% of Russians approve of his leadership according to recent polls. In fact, most Russians wanted Putin to change the constitution to stay on for a third term as president. According to Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov, a close friend of Putin, the strongman’s appeal lies in the fact that he has “given Russia her dignity back”.
Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov – a close associate of the man who is still the most powerful in Russia, Vladimir Putin – tells that the West does not believe that Russia is a European country, sharing European moral, historic, religious values, sharing market economy principles: “If we disagree on this or that point, they say: ‘Oh, Russia is a special country, it is still not European, it is an Asian country, we should not trust Russia’,” Ivanov says. And, nowhere is the gap of misunderstanding between Russia and the West more apparent than in their opposing views of president-turned-prime-minister Putin.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has said that he does not want his country to drive a wedge between Russia and the rest of the world. Speaking to the BBC in New York, he said the consequences of the conflict with Russia this summer which led to Georgia‘s loss of control over the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been “dire”, but that Georgia‘s focus now was to rebuild its economy and strengthen its democracy, rather than seek further confrontation. This is an interesting change of tone by the Georgian leader – a tacit admission that Georgia has been the short-term military loser in this conflict, but that it hopes to turn the situation into a long-term gain, by seeking to enhance its international reputation compared to Russia.
President Saakashvili admitted that, in the short term, Russia had made territorial gains and the cost to Georgia of this summer’s conflict had been dire.
But the consequences had not been deadly and Georgia would recover. “Remember Russia did not get two of its goals,” President Saakashvili said, “to destroy our government or to shut off the pipeline which is the main energy bloodline for Europe.” In a markedly more conciliatory tone than previously, he said Georgia‘s priority now was to rebuild its economy and strengthen its democracy. He put the emphasis on improving integration with the EU, rather than pushing for the NATO membership which Russia has objected to so strongly. He said this remained a long-term goal.
West to use Trade for Russian compliance
Only two countries have recognized South Ossetia‘s independence – Russia and Nicaragua – which is very significant. When it comes to territorial integrity the world is united. So far Russia has refused to countenance the idea of a sizeable international OSCE presence inside the disputed area. Moscow argues that now it has recognized the two enclaves as independent, Russian forces can stay there without anyone else’s permission as they are guests of the local governments. The current head of the OSCE, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb who also helped negotiate an end to the conflict, has not given up hope. “Certainly Russia is in the driving seat… We need to keep expectations low. Once we have got international presence in place, we can talk about the future of the regions.” An optimistic gloss, but the OSCE’s own talks with Moscow are not going well. French Bernard Kouchner is pragmatic. “In the EU we want to maintain a dialogue with Russia. It is a big country and it is our neighbor. We don’t want to go back to the Cold War. And we are consumers of their energy,” he added.
There is leverage on Russia, in the form of international markets,” noted Britain‘s Foreign Secretary David Miliband, referring to the steep falls in the value of Russian stocks from May this year and particularly in the last few weeks. He added that Russia‘s diplomatic isolation was also a factor. David was one of the tougher critics of Russia‘s action in the Caucasus back in August. So much so, that when he spoke on the phone to his Russian counterpart in August, frayed tempers apparently exploded into expletives. “We have a very strong interest in Russia being engaged – especially on Iran,” he said, adding: “We don’t want a weak and humiliated Russia. We’ve always tried to reach out to Russia.” But this week’s meeting in New York with Lavrov was, it seems, altogether calmer. “Strong views, but not necessarily strong language,” said Miliband, who then went out of his way to underscore the general anxiety there has been here in New York not to lose Russia as a sometimes valuable partner on other issues.
Russia also threatened to back out of a meeting on a new UN Security Council resolution to step up sanctions on Iran. The Kremlin now generally takes the view that sanctions are counter-productive. Faced with the prospect of the collapse of international pressure on Iran, the US and European partners acted quickly to bring Russia back on board with a much weaker statement – to preserve the appearance of unity. “We are not isolated,” declared the Russian ambassador to the UN, with some justification. And the incident leaves that question hanging: if the Western powers need Russia so urgently to keep up pressure on Iran, how then can diplomatic isolation work as a means to influence Russia to shift its position on South Ossetia?
There has been a dangerous trend in international scene. Strong countries try to run over the weak ones and try to justify and legitimize their aggression and oppression. USA, India and Israel top the list that also includes Russia. The short war between Russia and Georgia began when Georgia invaded its Moscow-backed breakaway republic of South Ossetia last summer. Russian troops stationed there were killed and Russia retaliated by invading Georgia. Hundreds of deaths and widespread destruction followed and relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated to levels not seen since the Cold War. From the West’s point of view, this looked like Russia flexing its muscles in Georgia, and that the Kremlin is slipping back into its old expansionist ways, and is on the march again. Georgia was just the beginning, according to some in the West. Indeed, Britain‘s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has warned of the threat of a new Cold War. But Russia views everything entirely differently. Russia‘s new President, Dmitry Medvedev, says he does not want a new Cold War, but is not afraid of one either.
All said and done and notwithstanding their angry anti-Russian rhetoric, the West has to engage Russia and take it into confidence in whatever the NATO does in the world, not just I n East Europe and former Soviet space. The Kremlin knows the West has limited options and they have to consider the legitimate interests of Russia in all regions- at par with those of USA. Unlike Iran, the veto wielding UNSC member Russia has be pursued politely. Obviously, the USA or UNSC or NATO cannot dare attack Russia on any fictitious pretexts as they do in the case of Islamic world.