United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is supposedly a specialist on
Russia, yet one would not know that by looking at her triumphal statement that
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will defeat Russian aims in
Rice proclaimed boldly that Russia "is becoming more and more the outlaw in
this conflict", referring to the Russian offensive into Georgia following
Georgia's attack on the rebel region of South Ossetia. "They intend and
probably still do intend to strangle Georgia and its economy," Rice said in
reference to the Russian forces that remain in Georgia.
However, at an emergency summit of NATO's foreign ministers in Brussels,
European countries agreed to suspend formal contacts
with Moscow until its troops pulled out, but refused to bow to American
pressure for more severe penalties. NATO is "considering seriously the
implications of Russia's actions for the NATO-Russia relationship", said a
statement of the 26-member alliance.
The fact is, Russia has finally drawn a line in the sand and, for all practical
purposes, the buck stops in the South Caucasus. Short of destabilizing Europe,
there is practically nothing the US can do about it, except fire more verbal
volleys, as Rice has been doing relentlessly since the outbreak of
Russia-Georgia hostilities on August 7-8. And even the rhetoric has fallen on
deaf ears in Moscow,
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has labeled Russians as "barbarians",
but the former New York attorney should have taken a course in global
geopolitics before foolishly taking on the Russian bear.
There are four interrelated causes of the present crisis: irredentism in
Georgia, NATO's expansion, the US's plan to station an anti-missile system in
Eastern Europe, considered a first-strike capability by Moscow, and the
geo-economics of energy security.
Russia's military has now entered into the calculus of energy security and, in
light of Europe's heavy energy dependency on Russia, the crisis will certainly
impact the future of pipeline politics in Europe.
On the US's part, instead of applying the arithmetic of political realism and
coming to terms with the sources of Russian anger, that is, at NATO's
unwelcome, intrusive and threatening expansion near Russian territory, the US
is now seeking to augment Russia's insecurity by pushing more aggressively for
NATO's role and influence in the region and beyond. The US is taking advantage
of Ukraine and other neighboring countries' fear of Russian power, put on full
display inside Georgia these past few days.
Such bellicose US reactions are neither fully in sync with Europe's needs and
interests, nor that of US's own interest - such as in engaging Russia in the
NATO-Russia Council. Whereas Moscow's legitimate national security worries have
been completely side-stepped and ignored in Washington (and to a lesser extent
in London), other Western leaders, such as those in Paris and Berlin, have been
more cautious and one may even say considerate of the Russian point of view.
Henceforth, a new trans-Atlantic rift between the US and some of its European
allies who are members of NATO may be in the offing.
For its part, the European Union's failure to offer Russia an adequate
framework for strategic partnership, reflected in its inability to provide a
new cooperation agreement with Moscow, is also a source of the present crisis.
But, with Russia consistently painting its relations with the EU as a
fundamental pillar of its foreign policy, the EU today has no choice but to
reframe its security calculus partly under the shade of Russia. For Russia's
neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia, still harboring the notion of joining
NATO, the war in Georgia has all but cemented Moscow's veto power, unless these
countries are ready to embrace worse outcomes.
With respect to China, which has limited itself to a studied reaction to the
fast-paced developments, the chances are that Beijing's real sympathy rests
with Russia and in this post-September 11, 2001, international milieu, Beijing
and Moscow have a greater common cause with regard to US unilateralism and NATO
expansion than they have disagreements over specific tactics and
sub-strategies. In a word, we may expect closer Russia-China security
cooperation via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the near future, due
to the two powers' perceived threat of the US and NATO.
Given the long-term damage to US-Russia relations as a result of this crisis
and the US's insistence that it has done nothing wrong and that Moscow
shoulders all the blame, a new era of frosty relations reminiscent of the Cold
War has now set in that will carry over to the next US administration, no
matter who wins the US presidency this November.
Although on the surface Republican Senator John McCain's "get tough on Russia"
attitude may seem to have benefited from this crisis, propelling US voters
toward more national-security focused elections in November, it is clear a
smart US policy will have to blend in more elements of diplomacy toward Moscow
to be successful. This means paying more attention to the Russian state of
mind, political psychology and perceived national-security threats, instead of
dismissing them as "nonsense" as Rice did not too long ago.
The crisis is also a litmus test for "smart power" US policy-making, a premise
that has remained in potential despite official pretensions to the otherwise.
It is simply not wise to corner the Russian bear and provoke it into aggression
by taking blatant initiatives that threaten Russian national-security interests
Such a narrow approach to global affairs is certainly a recipe for disaster
and, perhaps, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama and his
motto of change is the right alternative to set troubled US-Russian relations
back on a healthy track.
This he could do by reversing what former president Bill Clinton did, that is,
renege on the elder George Herbert Bush's pledge to the Russians regarding
All that Rice and her aides need to do is to put themselves in Moscow's shoes
and try to digest what it would mean if it was not the Warsaw Pact but rather
NATO that had been disbanded and now was actively procuring several new members
while, simultaneously, threatening the national security of the former
Not hard to do, yet no one in Washington seems capable of this elementary
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his
Wikipedia entry, click here.