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Russia wavers between conciliation and threats

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent   |   Sept. 16, 2008 at 10:38 AM
BERLIN, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- Russia would have invaded Georgia even if Georgia had been a NATO member, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently told a group of experts in Moscow.

The crisis between Russia and the West is still simmering. First, there is the unresolved security situation in Georgia, with two breakaway provinces recognized by Russia only; second, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is pushing eastward, a strategy that carries the potential for fierce conflict.

The Kremlin is particularly set against NATO's Membership Action Plan for Ukraine, according to Michael Stuermer, editor in chief of German daily Die Welt, who was one of about 40 experts who visited Russia Sept. 8-13 to talk to officials there.

"The Russian leadership has made clear: If NATO continues on this path, then we would have a serious crisis or even a war," Stuermer said Monday at an event of the German Council on Foreign Relations, according to a news release by the Berlin-based think tank.

Stuermer had spoken to Medvedev, the new Russian president, who in August gave the order to march into Georgia after Tbilisi sent its troops into the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Medvedev made very clear that he would have given the same order if Georgia had been a NATO member, Stuermer said.

The Kremlin nevertheless is not interested in another Cold War, said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the council.

Rahr summarized Medvedev's post-Georgia strategy: "Moscow's concept is: We'll draw a line under this story and continue with business as usual."

But that may not be so easy.

Russia not only has recognized the two breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it also intends to permanently station some 7,600 troops there.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has said the NATO-Russia Council will be revived only after Russia pulls its troops out of the two provinces.

"If the Russians are staying in South Ossetia with so many forces, I do not consider this as a return to the status quo," he said. "The option of keeping Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not acceptable."

Some NATO powers, including the United States and Britain, continue to push a tough course against Russia and unconditionally back Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Several EU countries, including Germany, are not so sure that the Georgian president can be trusted unconditionally. Europe is pushing for a clarification over who really launched the war in Georgia.

Meanwhile, the EU on Monday decided to dispatch some 200 police and security experts to Georgia to replace Russian troops stationed outside the breakaway provinces and to appease the conflict potential there.

The mission will feature observers from 19 EU countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Britain, and is led by Pierre Morel, a French diplomat who EU officials appointed as the special envoy to the Caucasus crisis. Brussels also decided to grant Georgia more than $700 million in economic aid.

The EU is now even more intimately involved in a diplomatic crisis that Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in a commentary called the "EU's biggest foreign policy challenge to date."

The big question that remains: Is the EU ready to shoulder that crisis? France holds the current presidency, and President Nicolas Sarkozy, despite his well-known tendency to hyperactivity, has managed to calm down Moscow and Washington while quickly brokering peace agreements. The problem is that the next presidency holders, the Czech Republic and Sweden, are much more critical of Russia, and the Kremlin has the irritating tendency to slam its door shut as soon as criticism flares up.

Stuermer, the Welt editor, said Europe does not have too much leverage over Moscow.

"We won't get around silently accepting the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said. "There will only be peace in Europe when we include Russia."

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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