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     Jul 10, 2010
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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 Moscow.

Acrimony reappears
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:
The 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 pre-conflict positions."

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 Bush administration.

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." 

Continued 1 2  

Medvedev's Matthias Rust moment
(Jul 2, '10)

Russia opens a new pipeline of diplomacy
(May 15, '10)

1. China flexes its naval muscle

2. China focuses on 'far sea defense'

3. Bombs away! Remember Cambodia

4. China's time to draw the line

5. Barriers to peace

6. The Guevara legacy

7. Thailand's forgotten war simmers

8. Weather clears for a US strike on Iran

9. Al-Qaeda's new man eyes Pakistan

10. Silver's naked truth

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jul 8, 2010)


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