Georgia War Shows 'Weak' Russia, U.S. Official Says

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

Russia's conflict with Georgia is the sign of a "weak" Russian nation, not a newly assertive one, and Moscow now has put its place in the world order at risk, the top U.S. diplomat for relations with the country said in an interview yesterday.

"There is a Russia narrative that 'we were weak in the '90s, but now we are back and we are not going to take it anymore.' But being angry and seeking revanchist victory is not the sign of a strong nation. It is the sign of a weak one," said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

"Russia is going to have to come to terms with the reality it can either integrate with the world or it can be a self-isolated bully. But it can't be both. And that's a choice Russia has to have," Fried said.

After Georgian forces moved into the separatist enclave of South Ossetia early this month, Russian troops attacked Georgian military installations and moved close to Georgia's capital before partially pulling back. This week, Moscow recognized the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a move the United States and European nations condemned as undermining Georgian sovereignty.

U.S. policymakers have debated whether and how Russia should be punished for its incursion into Georgia. Already, a civil nuclear deal between Russia and the United States appears dead in Congress, and Russia's 13-year effort to join the World Trade Organization is in trouble. Russian officials in recent weeks have disparaged such concerns -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week said he sees "no advantages" to joining the WTO -- but U.S. officials predict Russia will suffer if it becomes isolated.

U.S. officials and their allies have begun to suggest that Russia cannot blame any fallout from the Georgia attack on U.S. actions.

"They are kind of giddy. They will need to sober up," said a senior U.S. official, insisting on anonymity because his remarks were diplomatically impolite. "When they sober up, they will see that it is not the U.S. that has done things to them; it's that they have done things to themselves."

Similarly, in a speech yesterday in Kiev, Ukraine, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: "Today Russia is more isolated, less trusted and less respected than two weeks ago. It has made military gains in the short term. But over time, it will feel economic and political losses."

Miliband noted that Russia's foreign exchange reserves have fallen by $16 billion and risk premiums for investing in Russia have soared since the crisis began. By contrast, when the Soviet Union attacked Czechoslovakia in 1968, "no one asked what impact its actions had on the Russian stock market. There was no Russian stock market."

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has advocated removing Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized democracies. Miliband dismissed that yesterday as a "knee-jerk" call for action, though some Russian political figures have also begun to question whether Russia needs to stay in the G-8.

Yesterday, in a joint statement, the foreign ministers of the other seven members -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Japan and Italy -- said they "condemn the action of our fellow G8 member" to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, adding that "Russia's decision has called into question its commitment to peace and security in the Caucasus."

Vice President Cheney, speaking to an American Legion convention in Phoenix yesterday, condemned Russia's "unjustifiable assault" on Georgia. "The Georgian people won their freedom after years of tyranny, and they can count on the friendship of the United States," he said.

"Three American presidents -- Bush, Clinton and Bush -- have all in their own way sought to encourage Russia's integration with the wider world. This is a good thing. It was the right set of policies," Fried said. "Russia has now put all of that at risk, because Russian cannot simultaneously behave like the Soviet Union toward its neighbors like this is 1968 and act as if it is 2008 when it comes to the WTO."

Fried said the administration is determined to prevent Russia from claiming a new sphere of influence in the Caucasus. He added: "There are areas where we have common interest with Russia and we want to work with them. The question is whether Russia has an ability to work with us."

In the interview, Fried did not excuse Georgia's initial actions, saying U.S. officials told Georgian officials they could not win a war with Russia. "Georgia is a flawed democracy, a democracy in construction. You don't help them by whitewashing their problems or defending a bad decision. But you don't want it crushed," he said.

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