Russia courts old allies, steps up defiance of the West

President Dmitry Medvedev said Saturday that Russia is 'a nation to be reckoned with.'

By , Correspondent

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    Tough talk: President Dimitry Medvedev said Saturday that the war in Georgia showed the world that "Russia is a nation to be reckoned with" at a State Council meeting (above) in Moscow.
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Russia is groping for fresh ways to engage with the world after its lightning-fast summer war with Georgia chilled relations with the West and dismayed even some of its closest regional allies.

"We are facing the beginning of a complete review of Russian foreign policy," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign-policy journal. "Things have changed and, based on what Russian leaders are saying, our long effort to integrate with Western institutions, to become part of the Western system, is over. The aim now is to be an independent power in a multipolar world in which Russia is a major player."

Analysts here are divided over whether a "new cold war" between Russia and the West is in the offing, but a growing sense of isolation is leading Moscow to circle the wagons closer to home and to revive alliances with former Soviet allies such as Syria and Cuba, and new partners such as Venezuela.

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At a State Council meeting with Russian regional leaders Saturday, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that national security will have to be bolstered to counteract unnamed forces "who are trying to exert political pressure on Russia."

In a series of statements over the past week Mr. Medvedev has spelled out what amounts to a Russian version of the Monroe Doctrine, warning that Moscow will intervene to protect its citizens and business interests, particularly in the "near abroad," meaning the former Soviet Union. "The events in [Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia] showed that Russia will not allow anyone to infringe upon the lives and dignity of its citizens, that Russia is a state to be, from now on, reckoned with," he told the regional leaders.

The basic message to the West is "don't even think of parking here," says Natalya Narochnitskaya, former deputy chair of the State Duma's foreign relations commission and now an executive of the Moscow-based Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, which is funded by Russian business interests.

After a decade that has seen NATO – a 26-nation Western military alliance – absorb all the former USSR's allies and move to the borders of Russia itself, and the US move to install strategic antimissile weapons in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow has had enough. "There is a red line, where Russia cannot accept further pressure on its borders in its traditional geopolitical arena," Ms. Narochnitskaya says.

Multipolar era emerging?

Russian policy-makers say the world order has shifted from the bipolar arrangement of the four-decade-long standoff between the US and the USSR, to a brief period of American preeminence, to an emerging multi-polar era in which many powerful players will have to learn to work out their differences.

"We need new mechanisms for strategic security cooperation, because the old ones are not working," says Andrei Klimov, a member of the State Duma's international affairs committee. "There is a new reality in the world, and we need to discuss it openly."

At the center of the current storm are Georgia and Ukraine, both NATO aspirants that Vice President Dick Cheney visited last week with a message of support that is bound to further antagonize Moscow.

Ukraine, a nation deeply divided between pro-Western and Russified parts that is currently sliding into a renewed political crisis, could face intense Russian pressure if it presses on with its bid for NATO membership. "In many Western countries there are already protests against this crazy idea of getting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO," says Mr. Klimov. "It's a formula for crisis inside NATO."

Narochnitskaya, like many other Russian experts, insists that Moscow probably wouldn't attempt to break up or annex Ukraine if it declared neutrality and became a kind of buffer state between East and West, akin to Finland's unique status during the cold war. They insist that Moscow's objection is to Ukraine joining a military alliance, and not to its economic or political cooperation with the West in general. "The majority of Ukrainians identify themselves as an independent Slavic nation," Narochnitskaya says. "But they don't need to build their national identity on hostility to Russia."

Moscow has been putting out feelers to former Soviet allies, such as Syria and Cuba, as well as emerging partners like Venezuela. A Russian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visited Havana in early July to explore rebuilding Soviet-era economic and security ties. Medvedev discussed sophisticated arms sales and the possibility of the Russian Navy using former Soviet port facilities at Tartus, on the Mediterranean, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow in late August. The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed "deep satisfaction" last week when another old Soviet crony, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, became the first foreign leader to extend diplomatic recognition to South Ossetia and the other breakaway Georgian territory, Abkhazia.

New contacts a warning to the US

But any talk of reviving the USSR's alliance system may be deliberate disinformation intended to remind Washington of its own regional sensitivities. "Russia doesn't have any resources [to match the US around the world], and no desire to do so anymore," says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Institute of Globalization Problems in Moscow.

But even in its own backyard, Moscow is finding its tough new stance a hard sell. On Friday, at a summit of the Moscow-led, seven-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), Medvedev won backing for Russia's crushing military rebuff of Georgia's attempt to retake South Ossetia, but found not one ally willing to follow Moscow's lead in establishing diplomatic ties with the tiny pro-Moscow enclave.

Experts say Medvedev has received an even cooler response from Russia's traditional Asian friends, China and India. Both nations generously supported Moscow's decade-long effort to suppress its own separatist challenge in Chechnya and backed its angry opposition to Western recognition of Kosovo's self-declared independence earlier this year. At a summit of the influential Shanghai Cooperation Organization last week, where China is a leading member and India an observer, participants would only agree to a tepid statement that expressed "support [for] Russia's active role in facilitating peace and cooperation" in the Caucasus region.

But being a neighbor of Russia has just gotten harder, say experts.

"Russia has demonstrated that it's ready to use force outside its own borders, and this means countries of the region are going to have to take note and choose whom they listen to," on big geopolitical issues, says Mr. Lukyanov.

"The space for maneuvering between East and West [for Russia's neighbors] is definitely shrinking," he says.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy travels to Moscow on Monday with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana to encourage Medvedev to comply with a month-old peace plan for Georgia. Meanwhile, Georgia seeks a ruling from The Hague over its claims of human rights abuses against ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

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