Russia’s playing ball -- will we?

DIMITRI K. SIMES is president of the Nixon Center and publisher of the National Interest magazine.

HERE’S SOME good news: Russia is moving toward cooperating with the United States when it comes to Iran. This week at a Senate hearing, a State Department representative indicated that Russia could be expected to press Iran on the matter of nuclear proliferation. It’s also becoming clear that the Kremlin would support further sanctions against Iran and would withhold nuclear fuel from the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But that good news could change.

The Kremlin’s movement toward the U.S. position on Iran comes in part from a reluctance to see a nuclear-armed Iran, concern over Ahmadinejad’s unpredictability, eagerness to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and frustration over contractual disputes with Tehran. But it is also a gesture toward the Bush administration and European powers that Moscow wants to be viewed as a responsible player in the world arena.

Now Russia is waiting for the U.S. response on issues important to the Kremlin. First up is the question of independence for the Serbian region of Kosovo. Populated by ethnic Albanians, Kosovo was an integral part of Serbia until 1999, when a U.S.-orchestrated NATO intervention -- without a U.N. Security Council mandate -- seized the territory and established what is essentially a U.N. protectorate under de facto administration by NATO.


Now, with billions of dollars spent, NATO wants to end its mission. On March 26, the United Nations is expected to consider gradual independence for Kosovo. The Kosovo government has embraced the proposal, but Serbia, which wants to regain control of Kosovo, rejects it. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica complains that by granting Kosovo independence, the United Nations would for the first time formally break up a sovereign member state without its consent.

But much more than the rights of the Serbs and the Kosovars is at stake, and this is where things get complicated. Moscow, which has a veto on the Security Council, has made clear that it will oppose any plan opposed by Serbia. Except, possibly, under one set of circumstances: Moscow could theoretically be persuaded to abstain on the condition that independence would also be granted to pro-Russian separatist enclaves in the country of Georgia.

Like Kosovo vis-a-vis Serbia, those Georgian enclaves -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- have enjoyed effective independence for years, and their populations have lists of grievances against Georgians. Georgia, however, considers them its territory, and Georgia is quickly becoming the No. 1 U.S. client state in the Caucasus.

A reasonable solution would be to find a compromise that would win Serbia’s support by either falling short of complete independence or by allowing a few areas of Kosovo to remain in Serbia, thus setting a middle-of-the-road precedent for Georgia’s regions as well.

But for an influential group of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists inside and outside the Bush administration, compromise is unacceptable. For them, foreign policy is a morality play; the Russians are the bad guys and should be taught a lesson rather than being “rewarded” with a deal.

Thus, for example, Richard Holbrooke -- an architect of the U.S.-led attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 -- accuses Russia of daring to “defy” the U.S. and its allies on Kosovo and says the issue is “a key test of Russia’s relationship with the West.” Holbrooke likewise urges that inviting Georgia to join NATO, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia included, should become a “test case of the Western relationship with Russia.” It is easy to predict Moscow’s reaction.

Meanwhile, Holbrooke has an ally inside the Bush administration -- Dan Fried, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs. Fried maintains that whether Moscow likes it or not, Kosovo will not be a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “It just isn’t, and it won’t be,” he declared at a State Department briefing.

The only problem is that although Russia cannot stop Kosovo from becoming independent, it can prevent a Georgian takeover of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian military has contingency plans not only to block any possible Georgian offensive into the two territories but to strike back at Georgia proper. For its part, the Georgian parliament has passed a resolution supporting NATO membership, and its parliament speaker, Nino Burjanadze, explained that membership was important because it would help “to restore the territorial sovereignty of Georgia.”

It is easy to see where the hard-line American path will lead: a major dispute with Russia over the independence of remote regions that have little to do with U.S. interests. But the dispute itself will have an effect on very important American interests, by undermining efforts to have Russia onboard with American policy toward Iran and as a responsible partner on other issues.

U.S.-Russian relations cannot exist on two parallel tracks: one in which we demand the Kremlin’s cooperation on such things as nonproliferation and terrorism, and another in which Russian perspectives are contemptuously dismissed. It’s clear which track is best for U.S. interests.