Hands Tied in Washington Russia's Strategy Paralyzes US Government

The Bush Administration has warned that ties with Russia are imperiled, but the truth is that the US can undertake little more than symbolic action against Moscow. As much as Russia's actions have irritated the Americans, no one is interested in an escalation.

By in Washington, D.C.


Hands tied: Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates and George W. Bush are not interested in seeing an escalation in the crisis with Russia.
AP

Hands tied: Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates and George W. Bush are not interested in seeing an escalation in the crisis with Russia.

The Brookings Institution in the heart of Washington has invited guests to a debate. The issue, of course, is the crisis in Georgia. Sitting to the left is Robert Kagan, the argumentative conservative political scientist. Kagan has just written a new book in which he seeks to explain the psychology behind Russia's aggressive foreign policy. Sitting next to him is Martha Brill Olcott, a respected Russia expert with the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. Kagan criticizes Russia's Georgia strategy as a colossal mistake, but Brill Olcott starts objecting to some of his statements. The argument goes back and forth, both raise their voices until Kagan tries to assuage the situation.

"I'm not fighting with you, Martha," he says, smiling at his partner on the podium. "I am fighting against Russia."

"But Russia isn't even sitting at the podium," she replies.

It's not entirely true -- in some ways Russia is omnipresent here -- at least as an issue.

Because if you interpret the latest Georgian crisis as a cry by Russia for greater respect on the world stage, as many American foreign policy experts do, then the Kremlin has achieved a true stage victory. There is virtually no other issue on the agenda in Washington at the moment. At the Brookings event, so many Washington decision-makers turn up that the think tank has to beam the event onto a screen in a second spill-over room. The White House, Pentagon and State Department have issued statement after statement about the crisis.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has warned that "this is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. ... Things have changed." Defense Secretary Robert Gates has threatened to end military cooperation with Russia -- in both bilateral ties and in NATO. "What happens in the days and months to come will determine the future course of US-Russian relations," Gates said. "My personal view is that there needs to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state."

'We Are all Georgians'

The US presidential candidates have also spoken out. "Today, we are all Georgians," Republican Party contender John McCain wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Democrat Barack Obama demanded on Wednesday: "As we move forward, the United States and Europe must review our multilateral and bilateral arrangements with Russia in light of its actions."

But these are only verbal attacks. In terms of concrete actions, the Bush administration's hands are tied -- and even government representatives have openly hinted at that fact. The debate in Washington at the moment doesn't even touch on possible US responses, as is so often the case in international crises.

The Americans have sent considerable humanitarian aid to Georgia, and the Pentagon also quickly returned 2,000 soldiers from Iraq to the nation in the Caucasus. In addition, the Pentagon demonstratively cancelled a planned military maneuver with Russia while also announcing on Thursday that it had come to an agreement with Poland over the installation of the missile defense system so hated by Russia.

Still, the US government knows that it needs the Russians' help to solve a number of global problems -- above all securing energy supplies and the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program.

Would it even be possible for the US to apply sanctions against Russia? "Economic sanctions are unthinkable because the Russians have more leverage over us than vice-versa," Clifford Gaddy, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview earlier this week. Nor does he see prospects for legal or political sanctions that are now being threatened, like kicking Moscow out of the G-8 or hindering its entry into the World Trade Organization. This, he said, "would be ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst."

He's not alone in this opinion. That's why Washington's leading thinkers are focusing more on strategic questions these days. What's really driving Moscow? How much of this attack was calculated and to what extent did things spin out of control? And: Is the world standing at the brink of a new Cold War?

Strobe Talbott, president of Brookings, and also part of the panel at Thursday's event, doesn't think that's very plausible. Nor does he think that an ideological duel is about to take place. "I think this is more about Russia wanting to be a player again on the global stage that acts according to its own set of rules," he says. Gaddy explains that Russia's bullying of Georgia falls squarely in line with Moscow's interest in keeping tight reins on its neighbour states. "In the end, the rhetoric between Russia and the US will become hotter, and relations will become cooler."

'This Is a Putin Operation'

It could certainly become more unpredictable, too. Experts like Talbott and Kagan are already speculating that the confrontation with Georgia could also soon become an issue of dispute within Russia. The action has isolated Russia, it could have negative consequences for the economy there and it also has the potential to irritate large powers like China.

"This is a Putin Operation," Talbott says. "I suspect that in ways that will not be terribly audible or visible, but nonetheless will be significant, there is going to be a debate within Russia … over whether this was brilliant and how quickly to end it and move on." Kagan offers a similar assessment, saying: "I'm not entirely convinced yet that Putin hasn't himself fallen into a trap which may cost Russia dearly over the next decades."

But even if that were true, would that make cooperation with Russia any easier?

There are plenty of divisive issues. The second biggest oil pathway in the world -- the BTC pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan in Turkey -- was planned by the US with the support of Western oil firms during the 1990s over Russian objections. The pipeline also runs through Georgia. "If the Russians were to attain a dominant influence in Georgia, they could interfere with the pipeline from an economic standpoint," Richard Morningstar, who acted as the Clinton administration's lead negotiator on the BTC pipeline, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

There's also the question of NATO expansion. Georgia was given the de facto promise of future membership at the most recent NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania. But the issue of membership now appears to have been pushed far into the future, creating a true dilemma for Washington.

In the time since the summit, numerous foreign policy observers have concluded that Bush's resolute advocacy of promising Tbilisi NATO membership caused unnecessary tensions with the Kremlin. At the same time, if NATO now backs away from its pledge to Georgia, this could also be perceived by Moscow as a reward for its actions.

Or, as Kagan put it: "Does this mean that you can no longer accept a country into NATO if it has been invaded?"

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