(28/08/08) Crisis Group: 'Every unilateral Russian step helps unite the West'

Russia's unilateral recognition of South Ossetia's independence is another 'aggressive move', which only serves to shut out any sort of moderating voice in the EU and makes Western unity more likely, Andrew Stroehlein from the International Crisis Group told EurActiv in an interview.

Andrew Stroehlein is director of media relations at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Brussels.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Many political observers were astonished by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's swift decision to accept Parliament's recommendation to recognise the independence of South Ossetia. Could it be somehow predicted?

I think the decision by President Medvedev to accept Parliament's recommendation caught everyone by surprise, and in particular the speed with which it happened. I think most observers expected there to be at least some delay, some pause after the Duma's decision, and [expected] that the Russians would use this as some sort of bargaining chip and then report from there. But now it is going to appear to Western capitals that Russia is not interested in bargaining much anyway.

Would be right to say that both the West and Georgia underestimated Russia's reaction?

I do not think anyone was blind to the fact that the Russians might go this far, rather that they have gone this far so quickly. I think that is very surprising to many people.

Do you expect any other states to recognise the independence of South Ossetia or any of the CIS [Community of Independent States] states?

There are one or two countriess around the world and at least one CIS state in particular, namely Belarus, that might jump on the bandwagon, but I cannot imagine they are going to get a whole lot of support very quickly.

Who can be blamed for the escalation of this conflict?

There is an awful lot of blame to go around. In the first place, in terms of conflicts on the ground, they have been festering for many years and have been going on since the nineties - the international community has not paid this region enough attention and not really looked into solving these 'frozen conflicts'. The general lack of attention from the international community is certainly the underlying problem.

Getting closer to the latest developments, we had Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's promise of four years ago to quickly reincorporate these two breakaway regions [South Ossetia and Abkazia] into Georgia. In the history of ethnic conflicts, nothing like this happens quickly.

Furthermore, the decision in early August to use force was really an incredible miscalculation. By the same token, the Russian response was completely over the top and really disproportionate to what they needed to do to stop the Georgian shelling or to accomplish a lot of the other goals they said they ostensibly wanted to achieve.

But following the truce agreement struck by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, would it be fair to say Russia's actions certainly did not contribute to calming down the situation?

Russia's recent actions certainly increase the pressure. The Duma's move [to recommend recognition of South Ossetia's independence] was one move, the president's actual recognition was the second one. Combining both, in a very short time span - without really giving anybody time to respond - instead of moving on on their own certainly does raise the stakes.

Every move the Russians make without any form of discussion with the rest of the world makes it seem that they are not really interested in discussion at all. It appears that we are getting back into this Cold War mentality, with Russia making moves that appear aggressive to Western capitals followed by moves by Western countries that appear aggressive to Moscow. Nobody's national interest is really brought forward by that.

Georgia described Russia's unilateral recognition of South Ossetia as a clear violation of international law, claiming it created a unique situation which - contrary to Russian claims – is not at all comparable to Kosovo. Do you share this assessment?

It cannot be compared to Kosovo at all. There are huge differences. NATO is not going to hand out passports to the citizens of Kosovo under the justification that it is defending its citizens as the reason for any of its actions.

The recognition of Kosovo was a process which took over a decade so for Russia to say that this is a Kosovo-like situation when they kind of played this trick with the citizenship and then just made all the decisions that collapsed the entire Kosovo timescale into about a week is really not believable.

I do not really understand how they want to use Kosovo as a precedent anyway, since they are the ones that have been arguing against Kosovo's independence. How can they go from years and years of saying that this is not the appropriate way to go about things to all of a sudden switching the horse 180 degrees and actually saying 'this is exactly what we are doing and it is fine because you are doing it there'? The logic is very frayed.

However, unilateral recognition is certainly going to be interpreted as an aggressive move. And there have been two very dramatic moves in the last 24 hours. Every time they do that, [the Russians] are only really unifying the West against themselves, which is pretty much the opposite of what they wanted to happen with these moves in Georgia. They were expecting the EU to split [over the issue]. They were expecting NATO to split. [They were expecting] all sorts of splits to develop.

Every time the Russians make this kind of move, they are forcing Western capitals to bind more and more closely together because any sort of moderating voices in the West are simply shut out by moves like that.

On the subject of a unified European position: do you expect any concrete sanctions to come out of the Special EU Summit on 1 September? Perhaps a withdrawal of support for Russia's WTO entry or a suspension of talks on a new bilateral partnership agreement?

These are certainly the next steps that the West is going to consider, and EU leaders should definitely consider them at their summit.

In the report we released last week, we still didn't think that European unity on the suspension of talks on the partnership agreement would be possible but after the latest Russian moves, which were aggressive and unilateral, suspension is now more of a possibility.

The dilemma is that with sanctions, we are unfortunately getting into a Cold War, tit-for-tat mentality which helps nobody. On the other hand, these steps have to be taken to show that there are consequences for this kind of behaviour. And again, every step Russia takes makes the chances of unity within the EU or NATO more likely.

Would you go as far as saying that relations with Russia have reached breaking point now? Is Russia still interested in maintaining good relations with the West at the moment? President Medvedev said yesterday that Russia does not need to maintain good relations with NATO, but that rather it is NATO that is seeking good relations with Russia.

That kind of attitude is unfortunate and kind of aggressive. But unfortunately, we are hearing this kind of voice in Western capitals as well, saying that things could be heading into this direction. The worst case scenario is that this would lead to a sort of isolation of Russia, which - whether self-imposed or not - would not help to promote anyone's national interest in the international arena. Not the West's and not Russia's.

Does the EU now have to rethink relations with Russia?

There are two things Western capitals have to do. First, they have to make sure that Russia is not rewarded for this kind of behaviour. That is very serious as you do not want to see this kind of behaviour repeated in places such as the Ukraine or Moldova, against which - as I just noticed - there have been threats as well. There has to be a credible response that is strong.

On the other hand, you do not want to make moves that isolate Russia so much that they just encourage it to take more and further aggressive actions. This is going to be a delicate balance. The Russians have to see the penalties very clearly but also the potential benefits they might get if they are going to cooperate with the international community.

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De Groenen/EVAGroenen en Europese Vrije Alliantie in het Europees Parlement.


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