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reflections

Aug 14, 2008 | 02:04 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: From Tbilisi to Tehran, History Resumes

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.
For the past few days, history was being made in Georgia. Now it is about politics. History was made as the Russians engaged in their first significant conflict outside their borders since the end of the Cold War. Now we are down to the politics of implementing the reality the Russians have created. It is clear now that neither Europe nor the United States is prepared to challenge that reality. South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain independent and under Russian control. The Georgians will be left with the task of accommodating themselves to two political realities. The first is that the Russians remain a powerful presence. The second is that they can expect no meaningful help from the outside. Georgian politicians are hurling defiance now, and demonstrations supporting the government are filled with passion. Passion comes and goes. Georgia's new reality will remain for a long time. In many ways, this episode is over. The question now is what comes next. What is next is what was last: Iran. A little more than a week ago, a deadline set by the United States for an answer from Iran on freezing its uranium enrichment passed without a clear answer from Iran. The next step, according to the United States, is asking the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions on Iran. For that to happen, the Russians must not veto. Just as important, they must be prepared to participate in those sanctions. And even more important, the Russians must not, from the U.S. point of view, provide Tehran with new weapons — particularly air-defense systems more sophisticated than the Russians have provided to any Middle Eastern country. Such systems would, contrary to rumor, pose a challenge to U.S. air power should the United States wish to launch an air campaign in Iran, and would erode the value of the threat of those airstrikes as a negotiating tool. There are other issues. The United States relied on Russia to provide support during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The Northern Alliance, the Russian-supported coalition on which the United States based its invasion, has evolved. But Russian influence there is not insignificant. The United States does not need a hostile power undermining relations inside of Afghanistan or making it difficult for the United States to maintain its bases in Central Asia in some of the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Russians could not completely undermine U.S. policy in the region, but they could make it substantially more difficult. And the last thing the United States needs is any more difficulty in the region as it deals with Iran, a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and a potential crisis in Pakistan. At this historic moment, the United States needs the Russians much more than the Russians need the United States — a point that the Russians were undoubtedly aware of at the beginning of this adventure. The United States has adopted a careful line, from the president on down, on Georgia. The rhetoric has been tough, but threats and actions nonexistent. Apart from promising humanitarian aid delivered by the U.S. military, the United States has not suggested any countermeasures. The reason the Americans are not being tougher is that they need the Russians in whatever scenario they plan to pursue on Iran and the rest of the region. Therefore, the Americans are content to let the politics unfold without challenging the historic event. They were happy to see French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiate the political resolution. They did not want to take the tough meeting Sarkozy had with Russian leaders. The Americans want to put this behind them as quickly as possible so they can get on with Iran. They cannot afford to alienate the Russians. So this will pass into history. But while the next act is Iran, the one after that is Ukraine, the Baltics and the rest of the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainians are setting new rules on Russian flights over their country. But they know, as does the rest of the region, that so long as the United States is focused on the Middle East, they are on their own, save for rhetoric. The window of opportunity that we have spoken of so many times remains open. Russia has tested it and it likes what it sees. We will now see whether Russia intends to continue its historic lesson — and whether it intends to deliver one to the Americans in Iran.

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