Crisis in the Caucasus EU Considers Sanctions as Russia Looks for Friends

With European Union leaders set to gather on Monday to discuss Russia and the crisis in Georgia, France today announced that sanctions will be considered. Russia responded by saying the EU has a "sick imagination."

The cartoon published in the editorial pages of Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday is telling. Sitting high up in the branches of a tree is a soldier, labelled "NATO" and a woman, labelled "Europe." The man says to the woman, "one thing is clear, he is completely isolated." "He," in this case, is at the bottom of the image -- a gigantic bear leaning against the tree, preventing NATO and Europe from climbing down. The bear is labelled "Russia."

It is a drawing that goes a long way toward explaining the last few days of maneuvering in the Caucasus crisis. On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recognized the independence of the two breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Prior to that, it had become clear that Russia is in no hurry to withdraw its last troops from Georgia proper despite repeated assurances that it would do so. And throughout the week, the West has been trying to formulate an appropriate response that goes beyond merely telling Moscow that it's not playing fair.

On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner indicated how that response might ultimately look. When asked during a Paris press conference how the European Union intends to respond to Moscow's continued refusal to completely withdraw its troops from Georgia, Kouchner said that "sanctions are being considered and many other means as well."

France is the current holder of the European Union's rotating presidency and will be hosting a meeting of EU heads of state next Monday to talk about the Georgian crisis. "We are trying to elaborate a strong text that will show our determination not to accept (Russia's actions in the Caucasus)," he said. "Of course, there are also sanctions."

The response from Russia, as has been the case all week, came promptly. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Tajikistan for a regional summit of China, Russia and Central Asian countries. EU talk about sanctions, Lavrov said, is the product of a "sick imagination." He continued, saying "it is a demonstration of complete confusion."

The exchange is just the most recent in a week that has been full of them. The US has blasted Russia numerous times throughout the week, the most recent coming from Vice President Dick Cheney who called Russia's invasion of Georgia an "unjustified assault." NATO pointed out it was a violation of UN resolutions that Russia itself had helped pass. And numerous EU leaders have also condemned Moscow's recognition of the two provinces' independence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Dmitry Medvedev  on Wednesday to demand that he comply with the cease-fire hammered out two weeks ago -- a deal which, by the West's reading, would demand that Russia remove all its troops from Georgia.

On Wednesday, the G7 group of leading industrialized nations harshly condemned Russia and demanded it remove its troops from Georgia.

But even as the West has sought to isolate Russia, Moscow has remained steadfast. On Thursday, a Russian spokeswoman announced that the country had successfully tested a new long-range missile that is designed to avoid detection by the kind of missile-detection system the US is currently building. Moscow has also sought to compare its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Western recognition of Kosovo independence earlier this year.

Moscow has even begun shopping around for other countries which might be interested in recognizing South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence. On Wednesday, Russia's ambassador to Macedonia, Vladimir Solotsinsky, said he had issued a formal invitation to the government in Skopje to make such a recognition. Belarus on Thursday threw its support behind the Moscow recognition and may itself soon recognize the two provinces' independence, according to a report by the Russian news agency Interfax.

Still, it is unclear how long the bluster from both sides is going to last. NATO has been quick to try and ease Russian concerns about its presence in the Black Sea, insisting that a group of warships there is merely part of an exercise that had been planned long before.

And Russia's attempts to find international support for its invasion of Georgia -- which it launched after Tbilisi ordered troops into South Ossetia on Aug. 7 in an attempt to regain control of the province -- have not been going well. Even as Moscow said it had found support from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a group composed of a number of Central Asian countries along with China and Russia, the group stopped short of recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Indeed, China voiced its "concern" on Wednesday at the ongoing situation in the Caucasus and the SCO statement delivered on Thursday read: "The SCO member states express their deep concern over the recent tensions surrounding the South Ossetia question and call for the sides to peacefully resolve existing problems through dialogue."

The EU too has said it would like to maintain a speaking relationship with Russia. Even as Kouchner said on Thursday that some EU countries wanted to slap sanctions on Moscow, he made it clear that France was not one of them.

"France is not in favor of cutting relations with Russia," he said. "We need time. We're under no illusion about that."

cgh -- with wire reports