Just days before an extraordinary EU summit on the Caucasus crisis, EU leaders are issuing harsher words in the direction of the Kremlin. For the first time, even sanctions are on the table.
"Sanctions are being considered ... and many other means as well," Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister of France, which currently holds the EU presidency, said Thursday at a news conference. He did not elaborate on what those other means would look like, but he added that the EU would draw up a "strong text" showing that the West is unwilling to accept the steps recently taken by the Kremlin.
Naturally, Kouchner didn't have to wait long for a Russian reply. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the possibility of sanctions "sick ideas."
"I think this proves that (Kouchner) is completely lost, because the beloved child of some Western capitals has not lived up to expectations," Lavrov said in reference to Georgia, according to the official Russian ITAR-TASS news agency.
The stage is set for a special summit Monday in Brussels.
Over the past few days European leaders have tried to persuade Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to give in to Western pleas. Phone calls came from Paris (French President Nicolas Sarkozy) and Berlin (German Chancellor Angela Merkel), first to urge Medvedev to pull out all his troops, and then to tell him that recognizing the two Georgian breakaway provinces was a counterproductive move.
That recognition was unexpected to observers in the West, Hans-Henning Schroeder, Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, or SWP, told United Press International Thursday in a telephone interview.
"No one in the West believed that South Ossetia and Abkhazia provinces will ever fully go back to Georgia, but most people expected an internationally mandated solution for the postwar situation," he said. "This quick and unilateral solution by Medvedev is a huge mistake; it further isolates the Kremlin."
Even China, usually a reliable Russian ally in conflicts with the West, said it was "concerned about the latest changes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," calling for diplomacy to end the crisis.
Russia still has troops in Georgia, another source of aggravation for the West. Moscow argues it needs security buffer zones around the breakaway provinces to protect its citizens from further Georgian attacks.
Yet Uwe Halbach, a Caucasus expert at the SWP, told UPI that the West could hardly accept the buffer zones.
"The zone around Abkhazia includes half the population of the Georgian province Mingrelia, so for Tbilisi, this is nothing less than Russian occupation and loss of further territory," he said.
So far, Moscow has not moved an inch when it comes to dissolving those buffer zones, or at least handing them over to international peacekeepers. The Kremlin has not even allowed the EU to independently deliver aid to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and instead called for the money to be rerouted via a Russian humanitarian aid ministry. The West, it seems, can't impress Russia any longer.
Sanctions, some say, could be the final pressure tool. Yet how realistic are they?
Europe depends on Russian energy deliveries, so economic sanctions are unthinkable; so is a NATO offensive against Russian troops in Georgia, despite a NATO naval presence in the Black Sea. Two U.S. warships are sailing near the coast of Georgia, and Washington has also ordered the USS Mount Whitney into the area to deliver humanitarian aid. The sophisticated command ship, however, could also lead tactical operations.
Yet despite the military muscle-flexing, European NATO members, including Germany, would heavily protest any additional military operations in the region.
The only option that realistically remains on the table is diplomatic sanctions, such as freezing talks over a new EU-Russian cooperation agreement or even excluding Russia from diplomatic groups such as the Group of Eight.
Diplomatic sanctions can "be counterproductive," Halbach said, adding that Moscow simply may not care.
"We have to be careful that Russia doesn't take a shine to being isolated. Right now, the West simply doesn't have many means to pressure Russia."