Russia-West crisis enters 'breathing period'

Contradictory messages are rampant as the EU and US reconsider security pledges to Georgia while new players such as Iran and Turkey enter the game.

The effort to resolve the Russia-Georgia war and its fallout is entering a period of uneasy waiting and testing in Europe, the United States, Russia, and the Caucasus. All sides are entering what some diplomats call a "breathing period" amid the global credit crisis.

Conflicting messages are rampant as the international community waits to see if Russian troops withdraw from Georgian territories by Oct. 10.

"We need to wait and see if Russia pulls all its troops out of the buffer zones on Oct. 10," says Francois Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "In the EU, there's a tight link between implementing the cease-fire and future talks. The latter won't happen without the former."

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in New York that Western efforts to "isolate" Russia have not succeeded.

But Paul Goble, a former Central Intelligence Agency and State Department specialist on Russian nationalities points out that "Moscow thought it would get more support from its traditional allies over Georgia." He adds that Russia's markets are down 57 percent.

"Before Aug. 8, Russian central reserves were adding $5 billion a week. After, they were losing even more," says Mr. Goble. According to the Moscow news site, NR2, Russian markets declined more than $40 billion – due to the war as well as the global financial crisis – after the conflict.

Contradictions in the Russia-West crisis are rife. Recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Russia's nationalist rise as a "dark turn." Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quietly told NATO allies that Russia "is needed" in the war in Afghanistan.

"The US will continue to support Georgia, but with everything else going on, we can't afford to be reaching," says a senior US official.

At the EU helm, France is preparing for a key meeting on the crisis in Geneva next month. Issues over how to seat the leaders of Abhkazia and South Ossetia will be tackled there. At the same time, France and Russia on Sept. 20 in Sochi agreed to deals in natural gas, nuclear energy, civilian rocket launchers, and grocery stores.

Moreover, monitors from the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are preparing to deploy in Georgia. But in Vienna last week, the size of the OSCE group and its access to buffer zones, Abhkazia, and South Ossetia remained contested.

European officials are also beginning to suggest that while the EU has taken the lead, it cannot offer security support. "We can limit the damage, but we can't concentrate on solving the main problem of Georgia and Russia," says Thomas Gomart of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "A lot of us feel Afghanistan and now Pakistan are more serious problems."

NATO-Georgia ambivalence is also evident. Some 24 NATO ministers visited Georgia last week in a show of support. But Georgia's desire for a NATO membership plan this December seems unlikely in the interval when the new US president takes office. One senior German official, when asked if Georgia would become part of NATO, simply said, "No."

New players have also entered the game. "The lack of clarity in the US foreign policy right now has opened doors for Iran and Turkey in ways we haven't seen before," says Mr. Goble.

Tehran has hinted that it could be a delivery host for energy if pipelines were rerouted farther south, a suggestion Russia would not appreciate. And Istanbul is seeking a greater role as a mediator within the Caucasus.

A US official with extensive Moscow experience suggests that it is time for a renewal of private dialogue with Moscow that gives everyone time to "walk out of this." He adds: "I don't think we are going to see Russia take dramatic new steps anytime soon. They were feeling a lack of respect and they made their point."

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