Foreign Policy Blogs

Mixed Signals

What is it about the Caucasus crisis, now submerged below the sightline of international attention, that we need to remember as we close out 2008?

For one thing, recall that now there are Russian troops in South Ossetia, where there were none last August.

Second, consider that soon there will be no observers from the OSCE in South Ossetia, where there were observers before.

Finally, take note that the lack of a coherent Western response to circumstances in the Caucasus has meant that Washington has moved forward alone to negotiate broad security agreements with Tbilisi and Kyiv, creating an awkward policy environment for the incoming Obama Administration.

Readers of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal know that over the last two months there have been repeated and contradictory accounts as to what happened in South Ossetia on the evening of August 7th.

Much in these accounts hangs on the credence given to a British OSCE observer, Ryan Grist, whose reports and comments had the effect of strengthening the Russian version of events.

Although he now says his comments were misinterpreted, Grist faults the Georgian military and government for a "disproportionate" response to incidents that occurred in and near South Ossetia leading up to August 7th.  In the same manner, other observers fault Putin's Russian military for its own disproportionate response following the Georgian one.

It is almost pointless to debate whose actions were more disproportionate or provocative.  The Western response, whether via political sanctions or rhetoric, has been ineffectual.  In fact, rather than press for a return to the status quo ante, NATO has returned to political dialogue with Putin's Russia while Russia has effectively blocked the only appropriate mediator , OSCE , from returning to the disputed area.

This is not to say that the Caucasus risks erupting into violence again any time soon.  But the danger is that the lesson learned — by Russia and her immediate neighbors — is that a consistent Western response cannot be counted on.  Russia can declare territories beyond its own borders to be independent states, place its own troops there, and the West, after strenuous objections, will do nothing.  Here's how the NYT quoted the U.S. Ambassador to NATO last week:

The United States ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, said on Friday, "We signaled our unhappiness with Russia using military force to invade Georgia and change borders by force of arms, yet we also signaled a desire for a cooperative relationship with Russia."

The question is, which “signal” is the one that is likely to be recalled as Russia and her neighbors consider their future relations?  If in 2009 Georgia and Ukraine are not offered a closer relationship with NATO, if the lingering message is that countries in the region have no recourse but to accept Russian demands, then the legacy of 2008 will be more insecurity for Russia's “near abroad.”

 

Author

Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy

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