Russia tries to exploit division in Europe

Moscow's strategy to drive a wedge between European countries was on display during Monday's EU crisis meeting.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    'Stop Russia': Georgian protesters waved EU, NATO, and Georgian flags Monday at an anti-Russia rally in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.
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As Europe wrestles over how to deal with a game-changing Russia, the largest country in the world, it faces one of the oldest tactics in Moscow's diplomatic playbook: the art of divide and separate.

That strategy was on display Monday in the first European Union (EU) crisis summit since the 2003 Iraq war. The 27-member Union strongly condemned Moscow's Aug. 8 blitz into Georgia and its recognition of two breakaway republics – and warned Russia that it faced isolation if such actions continued, though the summit fell short of more serious and controversial actions, like sanctions.

Before, during, and after the EU event – which ended with an 11-point statement seen by Brussels insiders as marking a "crossroads" in Europe's relationship with Russia – Moscow put on a concerted effort to highlight divisions among European nations, and between the US and Europe.

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It sought to target divisions inside Germany, played on Italian and French concerns about the consequences of tough actions, and belittled the deeper worries in the "new Europe" bloc, led by Poland and the Baltics, contrasting them with the "reasonable" approach of what former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously called "old Europe," further west.

"Moscow is certainly trying to divide Europe, and to divide Europe from the US," argues Ronald Asmus, head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. "In the past few days they've started to try to emasculate NATO, to tell Europe not to go with the US. The comments sound Soviet-era."

Moscow's diplomatic "salami tactics," as they have been called, are expected to continue this fall, as EU officials decide how to support Georgia with a proposed EU observer mission – and whether or not Russia is complying with the terms of a cease-fire it signed with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Sarkozy visits Moscow next week to discuss the Georgia crisis.

Much of the initiative for the Sept. 1 summit came from Eastern European countries, who pushed in Brussels for a massive aid program for Georgia, the specifics of which were not clear in the final statement.

Speaking after the EU meeting, Moscow's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said, "It is clear who the loser is – it is the policy pushed by the Polish president and his Baltic co-thinkers; they acted as the advocates of Washington's line to undermine pan-European cooperation."

Just ahead of the summit, Moscow targeted Germany, which relies on Russia for 40 percent of its gas imports and about 35 percent of its oil. Also, divisions between a Moscow-leaning lobby and a more transatlantic position are expected to heighten in the run-up to German elections next year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the reconciliation between Russia and Germany is one of the most important factors of the construction of a new Europe. "We will not let anybody place a wedge between our two peoples," he said.

Yet Eckart von Klaeden, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in Brussels, described Mr. Lavrov's comments as "the attempt to separate Germany from its allies, and this will fail. Trying to separate us from Europe has been the Russian strategy for a long time, [and] in many ways."

One problem for Moscow, say diplomats, is that its separation strategy depends heavily on an international consensus that its border-changing actions in Georgia are themselves reasonable.

Yet so far, other states have not agreed. China, the world's other rising superpower, last week broke with its traditional support of Moscow on the question at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

"Russia has discarded what it presented as a basic interest, that of post-Soviet borders," argues François Heisbourg, in Paris. "For the rest of the world this was clear, understandable, and it made sense. That has been thrown to the wind, and has caused deep anger in the rest of the world. This was not chess, it was extreme poker; it is very worrying when a superpower state doesn't act out of reasonable interests."

Last week, in an interview with CNN, and later with German ARD TV, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the United States of provoking Georgia's leadership to attack the Republic of South Ossetia in a bid to create an international disturbance that would help unite the US electorate around the presidential bid of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

Although Russian military officers have stated that Georgia's weapons were supplied by the US, the White House described Mr. Putin's assertion as "ludicrous."

At a German Marshall Fund debate ahead of the EU summit, Matthew Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of State in charge of Eurasian affairs, who shuttled this spring between Moscow and Tbilisi, countered the Russian charge of military aid. "We gave [Georgia] uniforms, boots, Kalishnikovs, sidearms... no heavy weapons. We did not arm, or provide arms. When [Georgian troops] left Iraq, they left their weapons behind."

Mr. Byrza also advocated that the international community now enter Georgia and examine closely what actually happened during the Aug. 8 crisis in South Ossetia – look into the charges of genocide leveled by Russia as a reason for entering the republic. "Let's investigate. Let's look at what happened. Let's be transparent."

Russian officials in South Ossetia have said they are not yet ready for such investigations, citing security concerns.

A proposed EU mission to Georgia would include both military and non-military observers, according to a new blog, "Bruxelles2," that is devoted to EU security matters.

The EU mission, described as taking place in two phases, the second in November, would constitute several hundred personnel, and supplement a mission in Georgia of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has Russian participants.

Russian ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizov said Monday Russia would accept "about a 100 observers."

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