West grapples with way to strike back at Kremlin

Times Staff Writers

The Bush administration and its European allies, stung by Russia’s formal recognition of two separatist Georgian enclaves, faced new pressure Tuesday to strike back diplomatically and politically against the Kremlin’s widening move to assert its power in the Caucasus.

U.S. officials, who have shunned a military response, did not publicly specify available options. But privately, they cited the possibility of excluding Russia from a number of international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization. They also could try to pressure Moscow through economic measures that pinch the wallets or limit the mobility of Russia’s wealthy elite and middle class, including restrictions on travel to the West.

Leading Western European members of the old Cold War coalition reached out Tuesday to reassure former Soviet republics following Moscow’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, in Estonia, said the Russian move “contradicts the principle of territorial integrity.” British Foreign Minister David Miliband planned a visit to Ukraine today.


Meanwhile, a U.S. military official confirmed that the Coast Guard cutter Dallas would not unload supplies in the Georgian port of Poti, but denied that the change in U.S. plans resulted from warnings by Russia.

Instead, the Pentagon is avoiding Poti because Navy officials are unsure of conditions at the port following reports of ships sunk by Russian munitions that could impede access, the official said.

“The decision not to go to Poti was based on operational considerations, including our own lack of knowledge of conditions at the port after the Russians took it over,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing planning efforts.

The Russian recognition of the separatist Georgian republics came in a pair of decrees by President Dmitry Medvedev, who said on national television that the step had become necessary because it was clear that the people of the enclaves could no longer live peacefully with the Georgians around them after Georgian forces intervened in South Ossetia this month.


“This is not an easy choice, but it is the only way to save the lives of the people,” said Medvedev, who acted one day after the Russian parliament unanimously voted to accept the regions’ requests for independence. Medvedev later told a Russian television station that Moscow was willing to risk a new Cold War, and that it was the West’s choice whether to loosen its ties.

The U.S. and Europe, while regularly denouncing Russia’s advance into Georgia, an ally of the West, have taken few strong measures to counter it to avoid alienating Moscow while it could still withdraw its forces to positions it held before sending them into Georgia on Aug. 8. But Russian troops now are dug in, and by these decrees, Moscow has signaled that it wants to extend its military advance with political gains.

President Bush, whose appeals for restraint this week were brushed aside in Russia’s latest action, condemned Moscow’s recognition of the two enclaves as “irresponsible.” In a statement, Bush declared that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are part of Georgia, “and they must remain so.”

“Russia’s action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations,” he said.


Bush was quickly joined in the criticism by France, Britain and Germany, which portrayed the Russian move as a substantial escalation of the crisis and a dispiriting setback to hopes that Moscow might withdraw the forces it sent into Georgia.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the French deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said Russia’s recognition of the two breakaway republics “makes it much more complicated” to continue discussions aimed at a compromise solution.

The White House said “there’s time” to spell out specific consequences for Russia.

“We are reviewing our relationship with Russia; Europe is reviewing its relationship with Russia,” said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, complaining of Moscow’s “irrational decisions.”


But Russia was quick to defend its move.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, told reporters Tuesday that past Security Council resolutions affirming Georgia’s sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia were invalidated when the Georgian forces intervened in South Ossetia.

“Their use of force dashed those resolutions,” Churkin said.

Russia is widely expected to move quickly to increase its military presence in the regions. Leaders of the territories were already talking Tuesday about signing defense agreements with Russia; the South Ossetian president said he would ask Moscow to build a military base in the republic.


At the same time, Moscow announced plans to freeze some aspects of its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The alliance’s information center in Moscow will be shuttered, contacts with academics and experts will be suspended, and fewer Russian military representatives will attend sessions of the Military Council and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Interfax news agency reported.

Charles Kupchan, who was a National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration, said the Russian policy is a miscalculation because it “strengthens those in both the United States and Europe who believe it’s time for the West to take some serious steps to respond to Russian behavior.”

Kupchan said the Russian move was “a substantial step -- perhaps more serious than the fighting itself -- as an indication of Russian intent.”

Analysts said the move would also put added pressure on NATO to decide now whether its primary future role will be the defense of Eastern Europe’s borders, rather than operations such as that in Afghanistan, its current preoccupation.


Yet penalizing Moscow could be costly for the U.S. and Europe. Europe gets 40% of its natural gas and 20% of its oil from Russia, and the West dearly wants Moscow’s cooperation on such problems as terrorism, narcotics, nuclear proliferation, the Iranian nuclear program and Mideast peacekeeping.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said in a statement issued by his campaign that “no one wants to see another Cold War” with Russia.

“But Russia’s recent choices -- not American or European decisions -- are threatening this potential and reminding us all that peace and security in Europe cannot be taken for granted,” he said.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s wife, Cindy, was visiting Georgia on Tuesday, appearing at refugee centers. McCain himself said Moscow “must understand that its violations of international law carry consequences.”


Russia’s action fulfills the threat it made when Western countries recognized Kosovo, a breakaway province of Serbia, one of Russia’s closest allies.

“It’s the ultimate revenge for the Russians,” said Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “It’s the politics of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth -- if you do this, the same thing will be done to you.”

At the same time, analysts said some questions remained unresolved. James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said it was unclear how Moscow viewed the future of the enclaves: as part of the Russian Federation, as part of the Russia-Belarus union, or as areas with disputed status because much of the world will not recognize their sovereignty.

He noted that as of Tuesday, it appeared that only Stalinist Belarus was applauding Russia’s moves, while many neighboring states were responding cautiously or not at all.


“The real implications are still playing out,” said Collins, who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Richter reported from Washington and Loiko from Moscow. Times staff writers Megan K. Stack in Tbilisi, Georgia; Sebastian Rotella in Madrid; Richard Boudreaux at the United Nations; and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.