<%@LANGUAGE="VBSCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> WorldTribune.com: Mobile — Russia plays hardball, disrupting Euro vacations, 'soft power' daydreams

Russia plays hardball, disrupting Euro vacations, 'soft power' daydreams

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 Free Headline Alerts

PARIS — Europeans are nervous, being jolted from their summer holiday season, and reminded that despite the sonorous palaver about “soft power,” some states may wish to play hardball. Americans, distracted from the droning Presidential election contest, are shocked to recall there’s still a dangerous world out there where “change” sometimes is not a campaign slogan but a surprise military campaign. And as tiny democratic Georgia knows too well, the empowered Russian bear will claw away at its sovereignty.

For Vladimir Putin and his entourage of former KGB operatives, the Georgia gambit may be the first move in a renewed geopolitical chess game. Though Georgia became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union, the small but ancient land was beset by deep ethnic rivalries which have been manipulated by Moscow. In the case of Ossetia, a simmering separatist issue went to full boil with the Kremlin’s hidden hand.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili, took the bait, attacked the separatist enclave, thus falling into a Russian trap. The Russian military was ready and waiting and counterattacked with a massive invasion which sent armored columns streaming into Georgia and seizing major towns and communications lines.

French President Nicloas Sarkozy acting with alacrity and the mandate of his European Union Presidency, swung into action and brokered a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia; U.S. Secretary of Stare Condi Rice, moving in concert with our European allies, followed up with an emergency meeting of NATO ministers. Rice warned “We have to deny Russian strategic objectives, which are clearly to undermine Georgia's democracy and to try and weaken the Georgian state.” UN Security Council gyrations followed with France pressing for a formal resolution to legalize the ceasefire.

Importantly Republican Presidential candidate Senator John McCain stated, “The implications of Russian actions go beyond their threat to the territorial integrity and independence of a democratic Georgia. Russia is using violence against Georgia, in part, to intimidate other neighbors such as Ukraine for choosing to associate with the West and adhering to Western political and economic values. As such, the fate of Georgia should be of grave concern to Americans and all people who welcomed the end of a divided of Europe, and the independence of former Soviet republics.”

But why now? There’s no secret that Russia, stripped of many of the lands and power of the former Soviet Union, seethes to redress the verdict of history and to reclaim some of its more strategic regions. The move in Georgia, today merely a probe, seeks to assess Western outrage and gauge solidarity. Russia has repeated its warnings that NATO should keep out of its strategic backyard; talk of extending membership to Georgia and Ukraine have enraged hard line Russian nationalists and allowed the Kremlin the excuse to go beyond rhetoric and to operate the old fashioned way.

In its sheer shock value, the practical effect of the Russian attack has frightened its neighbors. Yet the unintended side effect was to reinvigorate Poland’s interest in hosting an American missile defense system and to prompt Ukraine to move closer to the West. The Warsaw government, already in NATO, shall now sign a agreement with Washington to host defensive radar sites.

Resurgent Russia flush with petrodollars, emboldened by its military thrashing of tiny Georgia, may become increasingly anxious to redress the loss of many of its former territories will continue to probe, subvert and intimidate regions such as Ukraine and the Baltic states especially Estonia. There’s also a the overlooked warning by Vladimir Putin after the proclamation of Kosovo independence this February stated ominously, of the ethnic rift in Georgia, “we have out own recipe for Ossetia and Abkazia.”

Though Western Europe may rhetorically criticize the Russian aggression in Georgia, it’s the Kremlin which hold a trump card, energy supplies. Western Europe has become to its peril, dangerously dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. Moscow’s giant Gazprom firm, has through its control of energy supplies, become a strategic player. Moreover a web of energy pipelines transverse the Caucuses; the vital Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline transports nearly a million barrels of oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey while others transport natural gas. Russia wishes to reassert control over this energy nexus. Western Europe, despite its sympathy for Georgia, may be reminded of its own cold winters and current gasoline prices of $8 a gallon.

Make no mistake Moscow is probing and testing Western reactions. While Russia’s moves are not likely timed to take advantage of the American election campaign, there’s the looming reality that should the U.S. elect a “Jimmy Carteresque” Democratic administration, the geopolitical chessboard would be wide open for renewed Kremlin mischief. So during this August crisis there’s an eerie déjà vu in much of Moscow’s political posture and crude grandstanding; its military moves into a sovereign country, (recall Czechoslovakia in August 1968) its threats to Poland, and its warnings against extending NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine. In the words of embattled Georgia’s deputy Defense Minister, “The Russians want to prove they are the bosses.”

   WorldTribune Home