Page 1 of 2 US-Russia reset on the skids
By M K Bhadrakumar
Last week, with a neat turn of phrase, United States Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton captured the quintessence of the United States "reset" of ties with
Russia. During her halt in Tbilisi on Monday during her five-day, five-nation
tour of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, she assured the Georgian
leadership that the US "can walk and chew gum at the same time".
What Clinton meant during what commentators described as a "reassurance tour"
of Russia's neighbors - Poland, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia - was
that the US could pursue the "reset" with Russia and the partnership with them
at the same time.
There were three recurring themes to Clinton's tour. First, that the
Barack Obama administration will not sacrifice its influence or policies in the
post-Soviet space for the sake of improving relations with Russia. US Assistant
Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon said Clinton
embarked on the tour "to reiterate and demonstrate" that the "better
relationship with Russia does not come at the expense of our relationship with
sovereign, independent countries that are near Russia".
Second, as Clinton put it in the presence of Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili in Tbilisi, "With respect to Russia's claims to any sphere of
influence, the United States flatly rejects that. We are living in a time when
independent sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions about
organizations they wish to join, to make determinations that are in the best
interests of their own people and how they see their own future."
Third, the US will continue to assert itself in the region, especially in
Poland, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, which are in the midst of an unusual warming of
ties with Russia. Clinton pressed the pedal on political pluralism and
democratic transfer of power in the post-Soviet space and included Russia in a
list of countries where the "governments are slowly crushing civil society and
the human spirit". Clinton stressed that Washington would continue financing
non-governmental organizations in the post-Soviet republics (and Russia) in the
endeavor to advance their democratization - something that profoundly irritates
On Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry lashed out at US policies under the
garb of advancing democracy "which verge on interference in internal affairs:
funding for training 'independent observers' of elections, attempts to nurture
the so-called autonomous local self-governments, lobbying for the 'right'
legislative initiatives, etc." The lengthy statement ended in a combative tone:
subjectivist judgments about what is happening in Russia, expressed by
individual leaders of the US administration and based on double standards, are
hardly appropriate ... Also, it wouldn't be a bad idea to more concretely sort
out their [the US's] own problems in the field of the observance of human
rights, including the universal norms of international law in this domain.
As could be expected, Clinton reserved her big punch until she arrived in
Tbilisi. She described the Russian military presence in the breakaway regions
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "invasion and occupation". This is the first
time since the August 2008 conflict in the Caucasus that Washington has used
the condemnatory expression.
Clinton assured the Georgian leadership that the US would continue to "call for
Russia to abide by the August 2008 ceasefire commitment signed by President
Saakashvili and President [Dmitry] Medvedev, including ending the occupation
and withdrawing Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their
Arguably, Moscow could draw some satisfaction that the US is still holding back
from acceding to Tbilisi's request to provide Georgia with antiaircraft and
anti-tank weapons and to post monitors on the borders of the breakaway
enclaves. From the Russian perspective, what so far mattered was that the
Georgian-US relationship is not as warm as it used to be under the George W
All the same, Moscow has taken exception to Clinton's remarks. The Russian
Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday rejecting Clinton's reference
to Russia's "invasion" and "occupation" of Georgia and demanded that Washington
should "take account of this objective reality [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
as sovereign states] in their public and practical activities".
Struggle over Ukraine
During her tour, Clinton brought back to the frontburner the US-Russia spat
over the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US
deployment of a missile defense system in Poland, and rekindled flames of
energy rivalry in the Caspian that had lately subsided.
Both in Ukraine and Georgia, Clinton positively viewed their prospects for NATO
membership. She enticed the pro-Russian Ukrainian leadership of Viktor
Yanukovich with the tantalizing thought that "there are so many opportunities
for Ukraine to assume a position of prominence and influence in the region, in
Europe, and even beyond". Clinton spoke of possibilities of defense and
security cooperation with Ukraine. Clinton remarked:
I think what
Ukraine is doing in trying to balance its relationships between the United
States, the European Union and Russia makes a lot of sense. Because what you
want is to protect your territorial integrity, your sovereignty, and your
independence ... we think this balance that Ukraine is constructing with its
very strategic location is in Ukraine's long-term interests and will assist in
creating a better atmosphere for relations between and among Russia, Europe,
and the United States.
Russia will be watching with some
anxiety that Ukraine has agreed to hold joint US-Ukraine Sea Breeze military
exercises at the end of this month. Clinton's message throughout was that
Ukraine shouldn't allow itself to be cowed by Moscow's coercive diplomacy
regarding NATO membership and she repeatedly reminded the Ukrainian leadership
that "the doors to NATO remain open".
Without doubt, the US has made it clear that it will contest every Moscow
effort to regain influence in Ukraine. To this end, Clinton harped on an
all-out US effort to make Ukraine "energy independent". She said the US would
help on issues relating to the modernization of Ukraine's energy sector so as
to "transform Ukraine into an energy producer and becoming more energy
efficient" as well as to create a "reformed functioning energy market that will
attract investment from around the world".
Clinton assured the Ukrainian leadership that US companies had shown specific
interest in Ukraine's nuclear power industry (which Russia has been eyeing),
the shale gas and methane gas potential in Ukraine and in deep-water drilling
in the Black Sea.
In an indirect criticism of the Russian business practices in Ukraine involving
the so-called oligarchs, Clinton called for changes in "the way that the energy
sector operates in Ukraine to ensure transparent, credible processes for
investing in the opportunities available". She repeatedly stressed that the
energy sector was "vital to Ukraine's future" - being the area where Ukraine
comes under maximum Russian pressure.
She said the US approach would be to encourage processes that "give Ukraine
more control over your own energy future, creating a strong, independent
transparent energy sector rooted in Ukraine's own resources ... we know that
investing in this energy sector is one of the best ways the United States and
other countries can help Ukraine."
The central theme boiled down to Ukraine's autonomy and independence from
Russia. "The country stands at a very important turning point in history ...
And we wish to work with you in this strategic partnership to assist you in
realizing the benefits of the sacrifices that have been made in so many decades
past by the Ukrainian people."