The resurgence of the Cold War is on every pundit’s lips, together with strong words intended to drive the Russian bear bloodied from its attack on Europe back into its cage.
Since Russian troops poured into Georgia to smash Mikhail Saakashvili’s Aug. 7 invasion of Tskhinvali, not a day goes by without an American official, from President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, to Robert Gates, or a clutch of NATO leaders shaking a finger and ordering the Russians to move their troops out of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia forthwith – or else…
Or else what?
This question was answered willy-nilly, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Moscow sources, with a highly discreet, very intense bid to set up a US-Russian summit for Bush, his Russian counterpart Dimitry Medvedev and the power behind the Kremlin throne, Vladimir Putin, as the only practical way to bring the rampaging tension under control.
One step in that direction was taken by the US at NATO’s Georgia crisis meeting in Brussels Tuesday, Aug. 19.
The 26 nations represented there proved incapable of singing in unison.
France and Germany, moved by their heavy dependency on Russian energy, urged caution, Italy led the group broadly voicing sympathy for the Kremlin’s position and condemning Saakashvili’s reckless poke in the bear’s eye. None were ready to tangle with the Russians and all were wedded to the proposition that international differences must be solved by talking them through.
The US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice used the disharmony pragmatically to soften a harsh anti-Moscow decision and stall the provocative step of an immediate NATO welcome to Georgia and Ukraine.
Indeed, the watered down NATO decision voicing “grave concern” about the Georgian crisis suited all the meeting’s participants. And the conventional bureaucratic delaying tactic of establishing two committees for strategic dialogue with the two former Soviet Bloc nations, while only hinting at the availability meanwhile of military patronage, was offered as a sop to allay Moscow’s concerns.
An April summit when no one listened
At the outset of the back-door exchanges, our Moscow and Washington sources report the two sides concurred that the face-to-face meeting should not take place in either capital but at a neutral European venue, such as Geneva, Vienna or Helsinki. It was suggested that Bush and Putin should also hold a key working session alone.
A senior US source familiar with the process told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the summit would not be tied to Georgia and the issue of its breakaway enclaves – or even the Caucasian, but broadly cover several bones of contention, such as Ukraine, the US missile interceptors to be installed in Poland (under a defense pact signed in Warsaw Wednesday, Aug. 20), Iran and the Middle East.
According to some American sources, the Bush administration has proposed reverting to the eleven-page Strategic Framework Declaration for the summit agenda.
Rice and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov wrote this document for the April summit between Bush and Putin, who was then still president. The two leaders left the NATO summit in Bucharest and met at the Black Sea resort of Sochi for a farewell encounter before both left their respective presidential offices.
When the issue of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine came up, Putin declared fiercely that Moscow would never accept it and would fight back if it went through.
As to the planned deployment of American missile defenses in East Europe, the Rice-Lavrov statement included a US promise to work toward “assuaging” Russian concerns.
Had that strategic framework been accepted by the two leaders then, the Georgian conflict might never have erupted. However, Bush came to Sochi determinedly focused on bringing Russia’s two neighbors into NATO as full members – a goal he never achieved. He brushed the Strategic Framework Declaration aside and instead plugged doggedly away at persuading Putin that his initiatives on Russia’s doorstep in East Europe and the Caucasian did not threaten Moscow.
Putin just as insistently opposed them.
Each remained deaf to any concern but his own, inexorably sowing the seeds of confrontation.
Back to the same script with Putin holding the best cards
Now, after a punishing four and-a half months and a pointless military conflict, the same leading characters are finally willing to return to the stage and reconsider the neglected April script – except that now, Russia holds the stronger cards.
Senior officials in Moscow who spoke to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources said that, while the Lavrov-Rice document remains valid, intervening events since its formulation have increased Moscow’s leverage. Russian leaders will be unrelenting in their pressure for substantial results from the summit on such key issues as the Ukraine, US missile interceptors on Polish oil and the broad Caucasian region.
The Kremlin will be driven by bitter grievances against the Bush administration on more than one score.
Before the Americans criticize us, said our Russian source, they would do well to examine their own actions. In Kosovo, for instance, was independence for two million Muslims worth the price of truncating a central European nation, Serbia? No one in Washington listened when we warned the Bush administration of its potential knock-on effect on Russia’s restless Caucasian “Kosovos.”
He named Dagestan, whose 36 nationalities are prey to Chechen-linked Islamist radicals, like the north Caucasian Kabardino-Balkaria; Chechnya itself; North Ossetia-Alania (a population of less than a million with 100 nationalities); Ingushetia, whose Ingush and Chechen peoples went to war on neighboring North Ossetia in 1992; Karachayevo-Cherkessia, dominated by Christian Russians and Muslim Circassians – not to mention Georgia’s break-up by the loss of three regions, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajara, the semi-autonomous Muslim region, with its important Black Sea oil port of Batumi.
Kosovo’s independence struck the spark for balkanization in the Russian federation and other parts of Europe.
Both pursue high-risk maneuvers to improve their hands
The same Russian source stressed that Moscow had repeatedly warned the Bush administration that the rash Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, needed holding on a tight leash. Unrestrained, he made a grab for South Ossetia which lit a fire under an entire region.
The dominant view in Moscow is that for the Russian-US summit to have a good chance of ironing out important controversies, the Americans must accept that Russia’s intervention in Georgia was a preventive exercise; its purpose was to replace the dominos knocked over in Kosovo and South Ossetia before they fell down in a chain reaction across the Russian Federation.
This bid for high-level diplomacy has not prevented both powers from pursuing high-risk maneuvers to improve their cards for the tough bargaining ahead.
A large contingent of Russian warships is on its way to the Mediterranean to take up position at the Syrian port of Tartus, cheek by jowl with the US Sixth Fleet, while Washington is seeking to deploy NATO’s US, Canadian and Polish warships to challenge Russian naval control of the Black Sea. (Read separate article on the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea as a key item on the summit agenda.)
Syrian president Bashar Assad is shopping for sophisticated Russian arms (see separate article) which could upset the Middle East’s precarious balance of military strength.
But by and large, both Washington and Moscow are fairly confident that their leaders’ get-together will take off – barring unforeseen blow-ups.