After Georgia, what next for U.S., Russia?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

WASHINGTON -- There is blame to go around as the United States assesses the disastrous consequences of the war in Georgia.

President Bush was overconfident. Georgia's pro-American President Mikhail Saakashvili overreached. And Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin overreacted.

Now what?

Washington is trimming cooperation with Russia on several fronts, most of them military so far, while saying the loss is Russia's. Putin, clearly in charge if there was any doubt before, seems unconcerned.

But even as the White House has concluded Moscow must pay further for an out-of-bounds war with U.S.-backed Georgia, it is worried now about going too far itself.

The cost of overpunishing, Bush's advisers believe, could be to feed Russian grievance and encourage the very Cold War-style regional aggression the West decries. Bush advisers appeared startled over recent days at raw statements coming from Moscow that suggest many in the Kremlin still put a premium on maintaining or even expanding the square mileage under Moscow's control.

Keeping cooperation

An even bigger cost could be the cold shoulder from Moscow the next time the U.S. needs its help.

Say, a few weeks from now when Washington wants Russia's vote for a new round of U.N. Security Council penalties against Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program. Or perhaps if North Korea balks over the plan to get rid of its atomic bomb arsenal.

A Russian plan to host a follow-up to Bush's Mideast peace conference of last year is probably dead for now.

Russia also cannot be ignored. It is one of the Security Council's five permanent, veto-holding members, as well as an energy behemoth with business ties across the globe.

Bush helped set himself up for a fall by sounding so openly optimistic over the years about Russia's desire for full legitimacy alongside the democratic, free-press nations on the other side of the old Iron Curtain.

This crisis mushroomed far beyond what he or other Western leaders imagined. The president has tried to contain it while striking the right balance of condemnation, coercion and concern.

Bush spoke on the topic, with increasingly tough rhetoric toward a Russia he once considered a promising if imperfect partner, on five of six days this week. That's a level of public presidential attention that few crises have drawn in his eight years in office.

"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century," he said Friday at the White House. "Russia has put its aspirations at risk," he added Saturday from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Further, Bush said "there's no room for debate" over whether Russia can lay claim to Moscow-loyal separatist provinces in Georgia that are at the heart of the conflict.

The White House has decided there will be further consequences for Russia, no matter whether it fully complies with a U.S.-backed cease-fire that was signed by Saakashvili on Friday and by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday.

For one thing, other nations in the region that once were Soviet republics or satellites have become nervous. Those countries need to hear world leaders tell Russia its actions in Georgia were unacceptable -- and to see some bite that shows they mean it. Bush's credentials as a self-styled global freedom fighter, particularly one who promised unflinching support to democratic Georgia and may have indirectly emboldened Saakashvili to undertake his military misadventure in one of the breakaway provinces that provoked Russia's brutal response, also are at stake.

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have issued tough denunciations of Russia, a signal to Moscow that the next U.S. administration will not sweep the Georgia war under the rug in the interest of a fresh start with Russia.

But Bush also still wants to make sure Russian leaders pick up the phone when America calls. The last thing U.S. officials want is a 10-year freeze in U.S.-Russia relations.

So with just five months left in office, the Bush White House has settled on an approach to punishing Moscow that would be intentionally low-profile. Bush advisers have concluded that anything perceived by Russia as a public humiliation would be counterproductive.

The best approach in their view is quiet action, such as continuing to exclude Russia's foreign minister from discussions among his counterparts from the Group of Eight industrialized democracies, as has been happening since the Russia-Georgia fighting began last week.

Most speculation had centered on outright kicking Russia out of the G-8, the elite economic club known as the Group of Seven before Russia was included a few years ago. Even such a public, more dramatic move would likely have little practical effect given the group's lack of power to enforce policies.

Another option would have the United States revoke its support for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, another penalty that, although probably the toughest available to the U.S., may not sting much for increasingly oil-rich Russia. U.S. officials have all but rejected that route as overkill.

The idea is to give Russia face-saving leeway to decide that Western institutions and Western-style governance are the way of its future.

The trick, of course, is convincing Russia of that -- a task that puts U.S. officials in the position of trying to get Russia back on a path it may never have been fully on.

The Bush administration believes its best argument is economic, essentially telling Moscow that to remain a country that merely sells gobs of energy worldwide but lacks international prestige and access to lucrative markets for a range of products would mire it in third-world status, rather than the first-world rank it desires.

True, perhaps, but also evidence that the administration has reduced its Russia calculus to self-interest on both sides. Rice said as much before leaving for Europe and Georgia this week. Russia will cooperate on Iran and other issues for its own reasons, she said.

"It's not a favor to the United States."


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Anne Gearan covers international affairs for The Associated Press and Jennifer Loven covers the White House.

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