US President Barack Obama will travel to Moscow July 6-8 on the first real test of his attempt to “reset” US-Russian relations. At the Kremlin, Obama must articulate what is negotiable and what is not.
In the latter category, Obama must tell Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to quit the Georgian territories that the Russian army has occupied since Russia attacked Georgia last August. This is not just a favor to a pro-American democracy—Obama’s “reset” policy depends upon it.
Beginning on August 7, 2008, Russian tanks poured into Georgia, thrusting well beyond the Moscow-backed separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia through which they came. They seized the city of Gori, the East-West highway that leads from the capital of Tbilisi to the Black Sea, the port of Poti and swathes of the western region of Mingrelia.
As the Bush Administration lay comatose, French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated the August 12 Six-Point Ceasefire Agreement, which he signed in the name of the European Union Presidency with Medvedev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Under this agreement, Russia committed to withdraw to pre-August 7 lines in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that is, to numbers and locations held by Russian peacekeeping troops before the war. It also agreed to withdraw altogether from areas of Georgia adjacent to the separatist territories. It has done neither. Nearly ten months later, Russian forces occupy Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the adjacent Akhalgori District and Village of Perevi.
There are three reasons why Obama must demand that Russia abide by the Six-Point Agreement.
First, though some will advise the President not to set firm boundaries for the summit discussions lest that spoil the atmosphere, the greater risk lies in equivocation. Without clear boundaries for the talks and for subsequent US-Russian relations, the new American president risks tumbling into the aimless diplomacy of photo-ops, naïve professions of friendship and unrequited concessions.
At the July summit, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Akhalgori and Perevi will not be just remote Georgian territories; they will be the fundamental test of whether Russia will now observe international norms and of whether the Russian president’s signature has value—in sum, of whether there is anything in the US-Russia relationship worth “resetting.” Georgia is the bellwether.
Even if discussions about Georgia augur well, however, Obama will still face tough bargaining with Medvedev. The US and Russia are at odds over NATO enlargement and missile defense, and they are not so close as many American analysts assume with regard to cooperation on Iran or on developing an alternative route to Afghanistan.
Moscow has neither the inclination nor the influence in Tehran to mount any significant opposition to the Iranian nuclear program.
On Afghanistan, Medvedev and Putin are no jihadis, and they support the US/NATO effort to the extent that it staunches the spread of radical Islamism into Central Asia, the Volga Basin and the North Caucasus. However, they equally dislike American power and presence in Eurasia—they would be happy to watch America and the Taliban sap each other’s strength for a decade. The proof of this was Moscow’s mischief in getting America booted from its pivotal logistics base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Russia will cooperate to a point, but it wants to maintain a tourniquet on any American artery through Eurasia.
Understanding this, America should cooperate with Russia to the extent possible; however, it must not sub-contract to Moscow its interest in the East-West Corridor. The second reason why Obama must press Medvedev to comply with the Six-Point Agreement is that Russian forces occupying Georgia are poised to pounce on the East-West Corridor—road, rail and even energy pipelines.
Georgia is the western gateway to the East-West Corridor, which has the potential to hasten commerce in much more than oil and gas. We now have the prospect of linking the Caspian Sea and the Eurasian heartland to the Black Sea, the Danube River, the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic Ocean. And with commerce come people, so the East-West Corridor will also become a pathway for ideas, perhaps the most important prospect.
Meanwhile, to help NATO open an alternative route to Afghanistan, Georgia offers its territory, facilities and logistical assistance. Of course, that still leaves America and its allies to reach agreements with Azerbaijan and some of the Central Asian countries, which is in America’s geopolitical interest to do directly, with Russia’s help, if possible, but not with Russia’s agency.
This leads to the third and perhaps most important reason why Obama must support Georgia in his upcoming meetings in Moscow—democratic Georgia is America’s best ally in the region. To be sure, Georgia faces challenges; it is developing. Perhaps not fast enough, say some protestors, but their protracted presence in the streets of Tbilisi highlights that Georgia is democratic indeed.
Georgians must decide their own future, but President Obama can “reset” the international conditions under which their democracy develops.
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This column appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.