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Home / World / Obama walks Russia-Georgia tightrope

Obama walks Russia-Georgia tightrope

One year after US-Russia ties hit a low over the war in Georgia, President Barack Obama's administration is walking a tightrope between resetting ties with Moscow and supporting ally Tbilisi.

world Updated: Aug 03, 2009, 07:43 IST
Lachlan Carmichael
Lachlan Carmichael

One year after US-Russia ties hit a low over the war in Georgia, President Barack Obama's administration is walking a tightrope between resetting ties with Moscow and supporting ally Tbilisi.

The administration is searching for a basis to cooperate with Russia on key international topics, but could be thrown off balance if tension flares anew over Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, analysts say.

Sparking a crisis with the administration of then US president George W. Bush, Russia smashed a Georgian military offensive to recapture South Ossetia in a brief war in August last year.

"The (Russia-Georgia) tensions.... are still very much there," warned James Collins, a former US ambassador to Moscow, who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The inclinations on both sides to sort of score a point are far too easily brought into play, and that's dangerous," Collins told AFP. "Our challenge is going to be staying out of the fray."

Sobered by the war, however, both the Obama administration and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, backed by powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, appear determined to avert a new flare-up, he said.

The Obama administration has also signaled it wants to reset US-Russia ties that hit a nadir during the Bush era because of both the war in Georgia and other issues like missile defense, Kosovo's independence and NATO expansion.

He pointed out that the Obama administration has been cooler than the Bush team toward plans for a missile shield that Washington says is designed to check a future Iranian threat but Moscow sees as a threat to its own defenses.

Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and expert on former Soviet republics, said Vice President Joseph Biden's trip to Ukraine and Georgia last month was designed to balance Obama's Moscow summit two weeks earlier.

In Tbilisi, Pifer said, Biden advised Georgian leaders against using military force to regain South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while seeking to reasure them that better US-Russia ties will not come at the expense of those with Georgia.

Both Pifer and Collins saw Biden as trying to distance the new adminstration from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a lightning rod for criticism from both Russia and the Georgian opposition.

"So the approach to Georgia will be more balanced and not so personalized as what we saw in the Bush administration," Pifer said in an interview that appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website.

Like Collins, Pifer believes the new administration will be cautious about how much military support to give Georgia, partly because there is "no conceivable" program big enough to help Georgia defend itself against Russia.

"I suspect that the administration is going to have a military-to-military relationship with Georgia, but I don't think providing weapons to Georgia is high on anybody's priority list in the United States," Pifer said.

He said the US focus is on stabilizing Georgia through promoting its economic and democratic political development.

Despite the new administration's more balanced and cautious approach, Biden nonetheless infuriated Russia when he took apart its pretensions to be a great power after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the end of his visit to Georgia and Ukraine, Biden described the Russian economy as "withering" and said its banking sector would unlikely be able to withstand the next 15 years.

Heather Conley, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said Biden ironically undermined the very policy he laid out in his speech in Munich in February with a call to "reset" ties with Russia.

His "remarks may be a classic example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," Conley said on the CSIS site after Obama returned from Moscow with widely welcomed results.

ht epaper

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