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The Monitor's View

Europe's (dis)unity over Russia

It will take US leadership to bridge divisions over what to do about Russia and Georgia.

By The Monitor's Editorial Board / August 15, 2008



This week President Bush promised to "rally the free world in the defense of a free Georgia." But will America's European allies fall in line? Troubling divisions on the continent show just how difficult it may be to present a united front against an overly aggressive Russia.

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Moscow's invasion of Georgia one week ago, including its bombings, naval presence, and tank incursions in democratic Georgia proper; and its shaky cease-fire and dawdling over a withdrawal – all this presents the greatest test of US-European unity relating to Russia since the cold war.

For the sake of democratic and economic freedom in Europe and beyond, and for the integrity of international organizations that support such freedoms, the West must stand together.

And yet, European leaders can't agree on how to respond to Russia's calculated crush.

The division breaks along familiar lines. Several "new" member states in the European Union, as well as Britain, are arguing for a tough stance against Moscow (though realistically and wisely, no one wants a military one). "Old" influential members such as Germany and France express restraint.

The reasons for the divide are not easily brushed aside. The EU's eastern critics – Baltic newbies (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) and Poland – sit within easy reach of the bear claw, and have the Soviet empire fresh in their minds.

On Tuesday, their presidents and Ukraine's joined Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at a rally in Tblisi. They have slammed French President Nicolas Sarkozy's cease-fire deal with Russia and Georgia for allowing further Russian aggression, and question the EU's "strategic partnership" with Russia, which is up for renewal.

EU foreign ministers have agreed to send monitors to observe a Georgia cease-fire, but can't unite on whether to rebuke Russia. Germany warns that pouring more oil on the fire would invite reprisal.

Indeed, Russia's got Europe over an oil barrel. Europe gets a quarter of its oil and half its natural gas from Russia, which does not shrink to cut off supplies to get what it wants. Europe's attempt to gain some energy independence via pipelines in Georgia is now at risk. (See story, page 1.)

But the passage of a few days has shown that Russia, by putting Caspian oil in jeopardy, is not a reliable energy partner, and by invading a sovereign country, is not abiding by international norms. What may have at first looked like an understandable reaction to a Georgian miscalculation has gone far beyond that.

The US is slowly recognizing this. Before she left for France and Georgia this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Moscow risks its standing in global clubs which require responsible behavior. She didn't spell it out, but ideas to force Russia out of Georgia include suspending Russia from the G-8 and the NATO-Russia Council, barring its entry to the World Trade Organization, and boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.

Not given much consideration yet is Europe's economic leverage over Moscow. The Russian elite sends its cash to Europe and travels there, too.

Europe is not without leverage, but it is without will. It will take strong US leadership to get its allies to fly in formation.

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