Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why was Cheney's guy in Georgia before the war?

What was a top national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney doing in Georgia shortly before Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's troops engaged in what became a disastrous fight with South Ossetian rebels -- and then Russian troops?

Not, according to the vice president's office, what you might think -- if your thinking takes you into the realm of Cheney giving his blessing to the Georgian's military operation.

To be sure, Cheney has been a leader of the hardliners in the administration when it comes to standing up to Russia -- to the point that the man who ran the Pentagon as the Cold War came to an end during the administration of the first President Bush has been seen as ready to renew that face-off with Moscow.

It was Cheney who visited the Georgian embassy in Washington last week to sign a remembrance book as a demonstration of the administration's support.

And yes, Joseph R. Wood, Cheney's deputy assistant for national security affairs, was in Georgia shortly before the war began.

But, the vice president's office says, he was there as part of a team setting up the vice president's just-announced visit to Georgia. (It is common for the White House to send security, policy, communications and press aides to each site the president and vice president will visit ahead of the trip, to begin making arrangements and planning the agenda.)

The White House disclosed on Monday that Cheney would hurry over to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Italy next week, almost immediately after addressing the Republican National Convention on Labor Day.

And so it was that a team from the vice president's office, U.S. security officials and others were in Georgia several days before the war began.

It had nothing to do, the vice president's office said, with a military operation that some have said suggests a renewal of the Cold War.

Crisis reveals West's lack of leverage over Moscow

The Kremlin's decision Tuesday to recognize the independence of Georgia's two breakaway enclaves deepens what has become Washington's worst crisis with Moscow since the end of the Cold War — a crisis that has revealed the West's lack of leverage over a confident, aggressive Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's declaration, announced in a nationally televised address, was immediately denounced by leaders in Washington and several European capitals. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the Kremlin's decision "extremely unfortunate."

Western nations, however, have failed to find the right language or set of measures to prevent Russia from tightening its grip on Georgia, a U.S.-allied former Soviet republic that Russia invaded and occupied after Georgian leaders launched an attack Aug. 7 on one of their country's Kremlin-backed separatist enclaves, South Ossetia.

During the nearly three-week crisis, the U.S. and its European allies have threatened Russia with exclusion from the World Trade Organization and the Group of Eight club of industrialized nations, as well as a freeze in relations with NATO. President Bush has warned that Russia risks international isolation if it persists with its actions in Georgia.

Those responses from the West have held virtually no sway with Moscow, which believes Russia has positioned itself well enough in the world economy to make isolation all but impossible.

"We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War," the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass quoted Medvedev as saying. "But we don't want it, and in this situation everything depends on the position of our partners. ... If they want to preserve good relations with Russia in the West, they will understand the reason behind our decision."

With the Kremlin's recognition Tuesday of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist province on Georgia's Black Sea coast, Russian leaders reiterated their confidence that their actions would not lead to Russia being cut off from international institutions it covets.

With hundreds of billions of dollars stashed away in reserves as a result of record oil prices, the Kremlin has convinced itself that the time is right to reassert itself within the landscape over which it once reigned during the Soviet era, analysts say. And, it believes its economic and political ties with Western Europe are durable enough to prevent Western condemnation from turning into punishing consequences.

"I don't think we should be afraid of isolation," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "I don't think this should be a doomsday scenario. I think common sense should prevail."

On the surface, Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has little practical value.

Both enclaves aligned themselves with Moscow years ago, after bloody civil wars with Georgian forces in the late 1990s left them functioning as unrecognized, de facto independent states. Moscow has kept separatist fighters in both provinces armed for years, sustains their economies and has made most of their populations Russian citizens.

But by recognizing the statehood of both provinces, Russia opens itself to criticism that it is violating a cease-fire agreement brokered by the European Union to end the fighting between Russian and Georgian troops. That six-point agreement, signed by Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, requires the preservation of Georgia's territorial integrity.

Leaders in France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Lithuania also issued statements condemning Russia's decision. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the move "contradicts the principle of territorial integrity." Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Russia's decision "dramatically escalated the crisis between Russia and the rest of the world."

In explaining the Kremlin's decision, Medvedev said Georgia forfeited its right to keep the two enclaves within its borders when Saakashvili ordered an all-out assault Aug. 7 on South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali. Russian tanks and troops quickly pushed Georgian forces out of the enclave and later pushed their way deep into Georgian territory. At one point in the conflict, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers were stationed just 30 miles west of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

"This is not an easy choice to make," Medvedev said in his address, "but it represents the only possibility to save human lives."

The Kremlin's confidence is buoyed by the West's inability to reach any consensus on how to rein in Russia's actions in Georgia.

European countries are far from united on their views of the conflict. Countries such as Germany, France and Italy, which have strong economic ties with the Kremlin and a heavy dependence on Russian energy, have been more careful in their criticism than nations like Poland and the Baltics — newer NATO and EU member nations once ruled by the Kremlin during the Soviet era.

As Russia continues to aggressively exert its influence in the Caucasus and other regions it once ruled, European countries may decide that a unified resolve to force the Kremlin to reverse course is the right tack. An emergency European Union summit on Georgia is scheduled for next week.

So far, however, any agreement among European capitals on handling Russia has yet to emerge.

"There's a lack of unity among Western nations that prevents them from acting resolutely and jointly toward Russian policy in the Caucasus," said Yevgeny Volk, an analyst with the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation. "Russia's influence in Europe is very strong, and there are nations that, because of their dependence on Russian energy, are more vulnerable to Russian pressure."

Volk said the Kremlin might rethink its strategy if the consequences of its actions strike at the pocketbooks of Russia's political and business elite. Western nations could freeze their assets, which he said amount to hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. and European banks. Or, as it has done with some of the world's worst autocrats, the West could impose travel sanctions on top Russian officials.

"These are the kinds of steps taken against countries like Iran and Belarus," Volk said. "The question is, is the West really ready to regard Russia as a rogue state."