(20/08/08) NATO cools ties with Russia without freezing them

Officials from Russia and NATO countries traded verbal attacks following the alliance's ministerial meeting on the situation in Georgia, held in Brussels on 19 August. NATO ministers said they could not continue "business as usual" with Moscow, but stopped short of bringing an end to established formats like the NATO-Russia Council.


On 7 August, Georgian troops invaded the breakaway region of South Ossetia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are officially part of the territory of Georgia, but are in fact autonomous and largely under Russian influence. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are also referred to as "frozen conflict" zones. Tensions in both regions have been increasing since Kosovo declared independence last February.

Russia responded with massive military action, invading part of Georgia and prompting fears in the West that it may seek to use the occasion to topple Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-Western Georgian president, and turn Georgia into a vassal state like during Soviet times. Up till now, Georgia has lost 197 soldiers in the recent fighting, while Russia has reported 74 dead. About 2,000 civilians died in South Ossetia, Russian officials have said. Both sides accused each other of genocide.

Visiting Moscow and Tbilisi on 12 August, French President Nicolas Sarkozy helped broker a cease-fire agreement which both parties agreed to sign. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised his French colleague Nicolas Sarkozy that Russia would start withdrawing from the heart of Georgia on 18 August, but stopped short of saying when they will return to Russia. US officials said in the meantime that Russia has been moving short range SS-21 ballistic missiles into South Ossetia which are capable of reaching Tbilisi, adding to the tension (EurActiv 18/08/08).

NATO Secretary General Jap de Hoop Scheffer said at the press conference that the NATO-Russia Council meetings would be "put on hold" until Russia adhered to the French-brokered peace plan. He also announced that the Western alliance would upgrade its relations with Georgia, establishing a NATO-Georgia Commission, a consultation mechanism similar to the one NATO already has with Ukraine.

"We are not closing doors, but we […] cannot continue with business as usual […] as long as Russia does not commit to the principles upon which we agreed to base our relationship," said the NATO chief.

US and Russia trade shots

US Secretary of State Condolleza Rice was more outspoken, calling Russia an "outlaw". Asked what action could be taken by the West if Russia does not comply with the peace plan, she said:

"Russia is very clearly isolating itself. It's becoming more and more the outlaw in this conflict. It is clearly in violation of a ceasefire agreement that it signed, signed willingly. Its forces are behaving in a wholly inappropriate fashion in a neighbouring state. It's been called to account by NATO, called to account by the European Union, and I think this is going to continue."

From Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shot back, calling the declaration approved at the NATO meeting "unobjective and biased".

He accused NATO of trying to rescue what he called the "criminal regime" of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a close Western ally who is pushing hard to win his country membership of the alliance.

"It appears to me that NATO is trying to portray the aggressor as the victim, to whitewash a criminal regime and to save a failing regime," Lavrov said.

The Russian minister also insisted that Moscow was not occupying Georgia and had no plans to annex the separatist region of South Ossetia.

Medvedev promises troops withdrawal

In the meantime, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a fresh commitment to withdraw almost all Russian troops from Georgia before the weekend. In a telephone conversation with his French counterpart and current European Union President Nicolas Sarkozy, Medvedev vowed that all but 500 Russian troops would be pulled out of the former Soviet republic on 21 and 22 August. Under the ceasefire deal, combat troops must pull out but an unspecified number of soldiers can remain as "peacekeepers", although there is little clarity on their mandate or their scope of operations.

Russia rejects UN Resolution

In New York, France submitted a new draft resolution to the UN Security Council demanding full Russian compliance with the ceasefire, including a full troop withdrawal, but Russia said on Tuesday that this was not acceptable.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin, whose country is a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, made it clear that his delegation would not accept the text because it included only two of the six points listed in the peace deal brokered by Sarkozy.


The last head of State of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev , wrote an op-ed in the New York Times stressing that Russia was not the initiator of the present Georgia crisis. "The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction," Gorbachev argues.

Alastair Cameron , head of European security at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the NATO response reflects both its limited options and the divisions within the alliance on how to cope with Russian actions. "NATO has little it can do and little it should do. We don't want to escalate this into an international conflict. The process of engagement between the two parties that is emerging is what needs to be pushed," Cameron said. He added that the alliance "has no real mandate in the region" and would not be able to deliver effective military aid to the Georgians in any case.

Merab Pachulia of Georgian Opinion Research Business International argues in an analysis that the reputation of Russia is being destroyed. "If someone can defend the Russian invasion as an attempt to improve the image of Russian army, it would be a grave mistake. Soldiers and officers were stealing the boots from dead Georgian soldiers (there are several pictures on the internet that provide evidence of this), stealing their clothes as well as about anything they could get their hands on. Some can consider the blowing up of hospitals, theatres, swimming pools, bridges, churches, schools, the killing of innocent civilians and journalists. Their body count included children and elderly people, etc. as just collateral damage and a normal part of war," Pachulia writes.


International Organisations

NATO: NATO’s foreign ministers reiterate their support to Georgiaexternal
NATO-Russia Council official websiteexternal
Press articles

The Telegraph: Nato cools relations with Russia after emergency summit on Georgian crisisexternal
Voice of America: Regular Contacts with Russia Impossible Until it leaves Georgiaexternal
BBC: NATO cools relations with Russiaexternal
AFP: Medvedev commits to Friday pull-out as NATO feud eruptsexternal
Bloomberg: NATO downgrades Russian ties to protest Georgian warexternal
BBC: Russia rejects UN Georgia draftexternal
The Moscow Times: NATO warns Russia that ties are at riskexternal
The New York Times: Op-ed by Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia never wanted a warexternal
CBS News: Rice: Full transcript on Russiaexternal
Geotimes.com: Analysis: Putin deliberately destroys reputation of the Russian Federationexternal

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