Austin Bay / Aug. 5, 2009

Russo-Georgia One Year On: From Reset to Repeat?

Is it reset or repeat?

This past week’s rhetorical exchanges between Russia and the Republic of Georgia is a definite reminder that the complex political, historical and geographic issues at play in the Russo-Georgia War of August 2008 still plague both nations and affect Russia’s relations throughout Europe.

Likewise, the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, touted by the Obama administration as a demonstrable change from Bush administration diplomacy, is, well, quite unsettled.

Take the U.S.-Russia “reset” first. The alleged “reset” of bilateral relations began last March with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disastrous photo op, involving a large button that she and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were to push. The act would symbolize the Obama administration’s new, enlightened diplomatic approach to Moscow. The button featured the Russian word for “reset.”

Except it didn’t. Pity the State Department translator who made the mistake; the Russian word really translated as “overload.”

It became the prop that exploded, a bit like a trick cigar in a Three Stooges comedy, and deservedly so – the entire “reset” pitch by Obama and Clinton was based on the false proposition that somehow the aggressive, knucklehead (fill-in the slur) Bush administration was at fault for coolish, semi-Cold War Washington-Moscow relations.

That was twaddle, repeated by a U.S. national press disinterested in real diplomatic history. Russia’s war with Georgia was the primary coolant in Moscow’s increasingly bad relations with the U.S. and Western Europe. Russian anger over Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia was another iceberg in the punch bowl. For at least six years, Russian diplomats had called Kosovo independence, without Serb consent, a “red line” issue that Moscow viewed as a fundamental interest. Secretary Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, had waged the 1999 Kosovo War, which set those conditions. The Bush administration largely stuck with President Clinton’s Kosovo policy.

The Kremlin, however, viewed the “Kosovo Precedent” as a bad, United Nations-approved precedent for spinning off ethnic statelets throughout the world.

Defenders of the Obama administration’s “reset” ploy said that the new administration wanted to soothe Russian pride wounded by the loss of the Cold War and their Soviet-era empire as well as endemic economic woes. OK, but note both prior administrations (Clinton and Bush) at times curried favor with coos, calling Russia a partner in peace, a great state, etc.

Count on Vice President Joe Biden to push another wrong button, or at least push his foot into his mouth. In an interview last month, Biden described Russia as suffering from a “shrinking population base” and “a withering economy.” Moreover, Russia’s “banking sector and structure” probably will not “withstand the next 15 years.” This weakened, rapidly declining Russia must make “calculated” decisions. Biden implied those would include security deals accommodating the U.S. and Western Europe. Moscow’s acquiescence to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia would be an example of an accommodating deal made by a desperate Russian state.

I don’t disagree with Biden’s description of Russia’s domestic plight – in fact, I have argued that the day will come when responsible Russian leaders will actively seek a security alliance with the U.S. and Western Europe because of a declining population base and their fear that China wants Siberia. Vladivostok as a NATO seaport sounds far-fetched, but who in 1988 saw Bulgaria, Romania, and Georgia as committed U.S. allies?

However, Joe “The Gaffe” Biden’s statements largely undermine the “pride salve” psycho-diplomatic angle. Secretary Clinton has been trying to stem the damage.

Meanwhile, back in Georgia, Russia and the odd semi-statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the guns are silent but the passions flame. Except, last week when South Ossetia accused Georgian forces of firing mortars into its territory.

The charge is reminiscent of South Ossetian claims of Georgian aggression in August 2008, accusations that the Russians contend triggered their “peacekeeping intervention.” The Georgians called it calculated Russian aggression, an invasion with the goal of turning pro-Western Georgia into a compliant Russian satellite.

Russia is now warning Georgia that it “reserves the right to use force.”

Bluster and bluff? Probably. But it is a political repeat and definitely no reset.

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