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reflections

Feb 28, 2008 | 03:01 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Russia Pushes Back, Indirectly

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
We have been looking for indications of how the Russians will react to Kosovo. On Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that it had reached a secret deal with Georgia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; Georgia had earlier said the Russians promised not to recognize the independence of the two regions in return for assurances about Tbilisi stepping back from its attempts to join NATO. The same day, Moscow held emergency meetings with Ukraine over natural gas supplies (and Kiev's related debt). In our view, both events are linked to Kosovo. The questions of Georgia and Ukraine are of critical importance after the events in Kosovo. The Russians regard the decision to grant Kosovo independence as a major rebuff by the West, and particularly by the United States. At a time when the Russians are trying to reassert their influence in the former Soviet Union (FSU), the credibility of Russian power is a central issue. Thus, independence for Kosovo requires a Russian response in which Moscow reasserts itself. Ukraine and Georgia have both, at various times, expressed interest in joining NATO — and if that were to happen, the Russian position would be undermined. Both are of strategic importance and they are the two countries most at risk from the Russian point of view. If these two can be reined in, the rest of the former Soviet states will fall in line — and Eastern Europe will take notice as well. As we said last week, that's why the Russians called the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Moscow. They wanted to create a platform for asserting themselves, and the targets were clear. The lever they had with Tbilisi was Abkhazia, a region that is ethnically distinct from the rest of Georgia and wants to break away. By threatening to support Abkhazian independence, the Russians are sending a message about Kosovo to the West: independence movements can cut both ways. In their statement on Wednesday, the Russians never said they hadn't taken the Georgians to the mountain and shown them the view. They simply said they hadn't reached an agreement, which is probably true, but is, in our view, a temporary condition. Similarly, with Ukraine, the Russians have important levers: energy and debt. An emergency meeting between Moscow and Kiev over the flow of natural gas was followed by the transfer of more than $1 billion from Ukraine's Naftogaz Ukrainy to the nation's import monopoly UkrGazEnergo, and then on to its partner, RosUkrEnergo — of which Russia's natural gas giant Gazprom controls 50 percent — marking an important step in resolving the long-standing natural gas dispute (and Kiev's massive debt). The final terms were undoubtedly generous on Moscow's side. Such generosity carries a price, and a pledge from Kiev to steer clear of any serious talks about NATO made that deal possible. In drawing attention to Georgia and Ukraine, the Russians are walking a fine line. They want everyone to understand they are flexing their muscles without being overtly bullying. They don't want to provoke an overly negative reaction, but they do want to assert themselves visibly — both to instruct the rest of the FSU and to make Europe and the United States take note of the consequences of disregarding the Russian point of view on subjects such as Kosovo. Georgia in particular is close to Washington, and the West has tried hard to move Ukraine away from Russia. Squeezing both of them puts Washington in the embarrassing position of not being able to help its friends. That will also be noted in the region. As such, the floor may have just fallen out beneath Tbilisi, and Moscow may have succeeded in sternly reminding the rambunctious capital in the southern Caucasus of its geopolitical place. Ultimately, despite having quite a bit on the line in Serbia, Moscow is still scrambling to secure the immediate periphery — and strategic buffer — that it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The significance to the Russians of Belgrade and the situation in Pristina is primarily symbolic (very great though it may be). Ukraine and Georgia represent two actual buffer states of fundamental importance to Moscow's security, and even the thought of their accession to NATO is utterly disconcerting to the Kremlin. So long as the Russians act, they do not have to act precipitously to compensate for Kosovo. They do not want any public capitulations. It is sufficient that Ukraine and Georgia stop discussing NATO. Not that they were going to be able to join anyway, but Moscow wants them to begin to accept the fact that they are in the Russian sphere of influence and their room to maneuver is limited. And it wants the West to know that the price for ignoring Russia's wishes in the Balkans will be exacted elsewhere. The West might have gained an independent Kosovo, but that will cost Georgia and Ukraine — both far more important than Kosovo — a great deal. The Russians are showing that there ain't such a thing as a free lunch.

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