Russia's big Caucasus win

Moscow has gained leverage, threatened Georgia's pro-West leader, and bolstered national pride.

By , Staff writer , Correspondent

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    Driving a hard bargain: President Dmitri Medvedev, seen here chairing a top-level meeting in the Kremlin Wednesday, is pushing hard for key concessions from Georgia.
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    Embattled: Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili said Wednesday that Russia had broken its truce.
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In less than a week of military operations sparked by Georgia's assault on its breakaway province of South Ossetia, Moscow is emerging as the immediate winner. A still-stunned West is looking for ways to censure Russia for its "disproportionate" incursion into Georgia that has reshaped the strategic game in the Caucasus and beyond to Russia's great advantage.

"If the Russians stop hostilities now, they will have redrawn the whole strategic situation in the Caucasus, to the detriment of the Americans," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "No one will invest in Georgia, in oil pipelines, in new ventures [there] now.... The game is over. In the new version of the Great Game, the Russians can cash in." The scope of the "victory" is substantial: Moscow controls territory and leverage, has incapacitated the Georgian military, denied Tblisi its much-hoped-for NATO status, and put the Georgian leader it despises – Mikheil Saakashvili – into a tough position.

It has issued a symbolic warning to Ukraine's westward leanings, asserted clout in oil and gas pipeline futures, denied Georgia the possibility of reclaiming breakaway provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and affirmed a deeply Russian set of hard-line political values regarding the disputed front lines of the old cold war.

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Moreover, by agreeing to halt its military on Tuesday, working with French mediator Nicolas Sarkozy, and only "recommending" that Mr. Saakashvili step down, Moscow is arguing it has reasonably protected its interests and not overthrown a sovereign state.

Moscow also appears to be slam-dunking the cease-fire details. The truce, which Saakashvili blamed Russia for breaking Wednesday, contains a "nonuse of force" clause that forbids Georgia to take action inside South Ossetia, a terrific concession. Nor are international peacekeepers coming soon; Russia gained an "additional security role" that formalizes its peacekeeping role in South Ossetia despite US calls for a more independent force in the region.

Russia is pushing for international talks on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which could lead to eventual backing of referendums that would allow those republics to formally separate from Georgia.

Both US President George Bush and Saakashvili cited reports of Russian miltary actions "inconsistent" with the truce Wednesday. But inside Russia, the venture is boosting pride and morale – part of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's mission to cast off the humiliation of losing the cold war, and reestablish a perception of Russia as a great power.

"At the moment it appears that Russia will have gotten positive benefits from the use of force across its border," says a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Despite Mr. Putin's clear assertion of personal authority in directing the Russian military, at least one Russian analyst describes it as a victory for new president Dmitri Medvedev. "For Medvedev, the outcome [is] a war that's been won. It's his personal victory," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a longtime Kremlin adviser and head of the Effective Policy Foundation in Moscow. But Andrei Kolesnikov, editor of the liberal New Time newsweekly in Moscow, disagrees. "The image of Medvedev is the biggest casualty. We, and the West, were hoping that Russia at last had a young, liberal, reforming leader. Now, after these events, he comes off looking like a tough guy, and there is an impression that he's totally dependent on Putin."

On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to the Russian resort town of Sochi to meet with Medevdev – considered an important diplomatic trip because of Germany's good ties with Russia.

Diplomats and foreign-policy experts say that history may record 8-8-08 as the beginning of consequential changes in the global system, which Moscow suggests has been compromised by the US-led war in Iraq and NATO intervention in Kosovo. It may prefigure a "tri-polar" world, with the US, Russia, and China as heavyweights. Russian tanks and China's Olympic "coming-out party" offer the relevant symbols.

For the West, the implications are still being tabulated, and "a lot of work is being done on this," says one Western diplomat. "This moment could well mark the end of an era in Europe during which realpolitik and spheres of influence were supposed to be replaced by new cooperative norms and a country's right to choose its own path," argued former Clinton administration officials for Europe, Richard Holbrooke and Ronald Asmus, in a German Marshall Fund statement. "While no one wants a return to Cold War-style confrontation, Moscow's behavior poses a direct challenge to European and international order."

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs in Moscow, agrees Russia's position has changed. But he finds a different meaning: "A Russia that has the means of force and is ready to use it spells a whole new situation," he says. "All neighboring countries will have to take this into account.... Much depends on how Russia behaves.... If it tries to dictate terms, that will have a very negative effect. But my impression is that Russia was quite restrained, and carefully calculated each move.... It seems likely that NATO will be paralyzed...."

Moscow will face downsides, to be sure. Europe and the US are refocusing on ways to censure or isolate Russia.

On Wednesday, President Bush, who is dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to France and then to Tbilisi, stated that the US would begin a "vigorous and ongoing" humanitarian mission to Georgia. He said he expected Russia to "meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia," as well as to withdraw all forces that entered the country in recent days.

Economic sanctions are not being considered seriously; the UN will not act, given Russia's veto on the Security Council. But eastern Europe – the leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine visited Tbilisi this week in support – are searching for punitive measures.

Western states concerned about the thwarting of democratic reforms in Eurasia are discussing methods to isolate Moscow. One idea is to cancel or ban the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi. Another, mentioned by diplomats and by Svante Cornell, a Caucusus expert, in the New York Times, is to drop or suspend Russia's membership in the Group of Eight (G-8) nations. G-8 status is based on ideals of international norms like transparency, consensus, negotiation, diplomats say. Other ideas include quickly granting NATO status to Macedonia – as a strong signal to Moscow.

A quick tabulation: impact of Georgia conflict

Georgia's NATO bid: With secure borders and political stability as membership requirements, NATO is unlikely to admit Georgia soon.

Saakashvili's position: Georgians have publicly rallied behind him, but grumbled about his failed bid to reclaim S. Ossetia.

Oil and gas: Developers from Central Asia and the Caspian will likely face pressure from Moscow to use Russia instead of the South Caucasus bypass route.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Tbilisi wants to reclaim the ethnic breakaway regions, but a Russia-backed referendum based on the Kosovo precedent could make this impossible.

Ukraine: Russia's push into Georgia sends a message of "who's in charge" to those in this key state who wish to integrate with the West.

Russia is "back": Natalya Narochnitskaya of the Russian Institute of Democracy and Cooperation says that Russia "has a renewed national and state will.

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