When war erupted in August between Russia and Georgia, it was the European Union (EU) president who achieved a cease-fire agreement. Was this just a lucky break for the EU, or a sign of Europe's strength?
The answer is one that Europe needs to take full advantage of: Nicolas Sarkozy achieved the cease-fire not because the EU has more military divisions than Stalin's heirs. His personal energy and France's weight may have helped, but Europe's real clout is its pull on Russia and its people.
As the tone of Russian President Dimitry Medvedev's state-of-the-union address indicated this week, big challenges remain. On top of strong language for Washington, Russia has military predominance on Georgia's doorstep and no Western counterweight is in sight. Moscow's recognition of the "independence" of the Georgian separatist areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – despite international condemnation – seems intended to signal that Moscow will not retreat.
Europe, not America is now best able to get Moscow to behave. Europe is a neighbor and huge market for Russian energy and minerals. The EU accounted for just over half of Russia's foreign trade in 2007. Russians see Europe as appealing – a rich and stable region where the state plays a large role and citizens enjoy generous social benefits. And Russian elites have long aspired to European ways.
Underlining Europe's pull, President Medvedev recently called the EU a "strategic partner" and waxed that Europe and Russia were "united by history, by common borders, and most important, I hope, we are united by the vision of a new greater Europe."
In the wake of the Georgian war, however, Europeans have reason to harbor increased doubt that Russia is a strategic partner. Moscow is going out of its way to signal that Ukraine is the next target. Russian leaders have publicly vilified President Yushchenko, challenged the logic of Crimea's status in Ukraine, and insisted on retaining the Russian naval base at Sevastopol after the lease expires in 2017.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin even alleged that Ukraine had dispatched soldiers to fight alongside Georgian troops in the August war. Just as incredulously, this week Medvedev charged that the war was "among other things, the result of the arrogant course of the US administration." It is unlikely that rants such as these are what Europe expects of a partner.
Still, the EU has notable advantages over the US and NATO in influencing Russia to behave more responsibly. Distant from Russia, the US is a military rival and not a major economic partner. Many Russians are suspicious of the US and NATO.
The EU should develop more traction with Russia so as to capitalize fully on its advantage. The EU should devise ways for Georgia and Ukraine to participate in an association with step-by-step integration, free trade arrangements, and a road map for eventual EU membership. The road map should be accompanied by an intensified EU-Russian dialogue that would underscore the benefits of cooperation for all parties.
If Russia treats its neighbors and economic partners fairly, an enhanced EU-Russia partnership should be on the table. Incentives work best when combined with clear expectations. Mistreating energy investors, such as BP, or undermining the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should have well- understood consequences.
These steps would better anchor Russia and its interested neighbors in Europe's architecture, enhance democratic gains and political stability, and build a stronger foundation for prosperity. Then, further democratic and economic reforms would make those countries more attractive partners to the EU.
Closer linkages with the EU would also discourage Russia from picking fights with neighbors for fear of diminishing its own European relations.
The West should adopt a long-haul strategy with South Ossetia and Abkhazia akin to nonrecognition of the forcible incorporation of the Baltic countries into the USSR in 1940. This policy allowed the West to pursue high priorities with Moscow, such as nuclear arms control. Likewise, today a formula needs to be found which will permit negotiations for a new EU-Russia partnership agreement.
In addressing the UN General Assembly this fall, French President Sarkozy suggested a good way forward, "Why not build across the whole Continent a common economic space which would unite Russia and Europe?"
He is on the mark. Isolating Russia or keeping it permanently at arm's length would be a historic error. Eventually, Russia will awake from its tragic history of authoritarianism and imperialism. Europe and the EU can hasten this by offering the prospect of closer integration if Russia respects the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of its neighbors. When president, Obama can reinforce this course, but America cannot substitute for Europe.
• Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at King's College London and a former European Commission ambassador to Georgia. William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz are former US ambassadors to Georgia. Mr. Yalowitz directs the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.