Russia and the West
A deal, for now
Sep 9th 2008
Europe shores up the Russian-Georgian ceasefire agreement
HUMILIATION avoided, but hardly a triumph: that is the upshot of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s talks in Moscow on Monday September 9th, where he tried to get the Kremlin to implement in full a French-brokered ceasefire that ended Russia’s war with Georgia.
After sometimes stormy talks, Mr Sarkozy, accompanied by the European Union’s nominal foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, and the EU commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, gained agreement on the withdrawal of Russian troops from a buffer zone established around the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia (but so far almost nobody else) has recognised both places as independent states.
Russian forces will leave positions around the port of Poti within a week, and pull back from the rest of the buffer zone ten days after EU monitors are deployed, which must be by October 1st. Yet that is pretty much what Mr Sarkozy thought he had gained in the first ceasefire agreement, which envisaged (at least in Western eyes) troops from both sides moving back promptly to their pre-conflict positions.
Mr Sarkozy said that the deal, if honoured, would allow the resumption, presumably in October, of talks between the EU and Russia on a new partnership agreement. The decision of an emergency European summit was to suspend these talks amid unprecedented displeasure with Russia for its invasion of Georgia and recognition of the breakaway regions.
Yet the coming weeks offer plenty of scope for quibbling and foot-dragging. Russia has repeatedly accused Georgia of breaking the ceasefire agreement: that could be one pretext. Another could be any signs of American help to rebuild the shattered remnants of the Georgian army—which the Kremlin refers to hyperbolically as “Georgia’s military machine”. Russia also wants the Georgian leadership to sign a binding agreement renouncing the use of force to recover the lost territories. The EU says it will guarantee this. It also wants Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, to stand trial for war crimes. It is unclear whether a 200-strong EU force will be able to patrol inside the breakaway regions.
Blame for the muddle rests partly with France, currently in charge of the EU. Mr Sarkozy allowed two different versions of the vaguely worded ceasefire agreement to circulate, with ambiguous translations on a key issue: whether Russia is allowed to provide security “in” the breakaway regions, or “for” them.
The latest agreement also allows Russia to maintain many more troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia than before the conflict. Western diplomats say that insisting on a reduction to pre-war levels is unrealistic. None of that is much comfort for the Georgian leadership, which is coping with tens of thousands of refugees and a nose-diving economy. Russian pressure for his departure may have shored up Mr Saakashvili’s position for now, but behind the scenes Georgian politicians are manoeuvring to replace him.
The worst east-west row for more than two decades may have stopped hotting up, but it is not cooling off much. Russia is sending a flotilla headed by one of its largest warships, Peter the Great, a nuclear-powered cruiser, to the Caribbean for joint manoeuvres with Venezuela, America’s most pungent adversary in the region. That follows the deployment of a handful of American naval ships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia. America has suspended a deal with Russia that would have allowed companies from both countries to invest in each other’s nuclear industry.
Russia may be betting that Europe and America cannot stay focused on Georgia for long. Russian help is needed on a range of other global issues, from Afghanistan to Iran. The EU and NATO are both deeply divided on Russia, with countries such as Italy loudly opposing sanctions of any kind, and others such as Germany highly mindful of Russia’s role as an energy supplier. A more hawkish camp, including Britain, Sweden, Poland and the Baltic states, want a fundamental rethink of relations with Russia. But even proponents of that admit that the costs will be high, and the benefits distant.
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Russia and the West