U.S. abandoning Russia's neighbors

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By David J. Kramer
Saturday, May 15, 2010

Some 14 months ago on this page, I warned against a "grand bargain" between the United States and Russia as part of the Obama administration's reset efforts with Moscow ["No grand bargain," op-ed, March 6]. One concern then was that the administration would pursue a "Russia first" policy at the expense of Russia's neighbors. The problem, it appears, is actually worse: The administration seems to have moved toward a "Russia only" approach, neglecting and even abandoning other countries in the region.

The most glaring example of this trend came this week. In a message accompanying the White House's resubmission to Congress of a nuclear cooperation pact with Russia, President Obama declared that the situation in Georgia "need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding" with congressional review of the agreement. The Bush administration signed this "123" agreement in May 2008 but withdrew it from congressional consideration four months later, knowing it would be rejected in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Georgia that August. Russian forces continue to occupy separatist parts of Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in blatant violation of the cease-fire agreement between the two countries and are constructing bases in both regions, which Moscow has recognized as independent states. The situation remains tense and could easily explode again.

It would be one thing to resubmit the 123 treaty noting that the United States still has serious disagreements with Russia over Georgia. Instead, by stating so baldly that the situation in Georgia is no longer an obstacle to advancing Russian-American relations, the administration is essentially abandoning the Georgians and giving Russia a green light to continue to engage in provocative behavior along its borders.

The Obama administration's interest in reviving the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty from which Russia suspended its compliance at the end of 2007 raises similar concerns. Despite efforts that the Bush administration led among NATO allies and other signatories of the treaty to accommodate Russian concerns, Moscow refused to comply with Istanbul Commitments, signed in 1999, in which Russia pledged to withdraw its forces from Georgia and Moldova. Neither of those governments has given Russia consent to occupy parts of its territory, but the problem was made even worse after Russia's invasion of Georgia. Whereas before Russia had only one base left, Gudauta, from which to withdraw, it now has many more troops and munitions on the ground in Georgia (and there has been no movement on Russian troops from Moldova, either).

In the interest of removing irritating issues from its agenda with Moscow, will the Obama administration sell out Georgia and Moldova by dropping insistence on Russian withdrawal from those two countries? Or will it do the right thing, treat "host-country consent" as a sacrosanct principle and use efforts to revive the CFE Treaty as a mechanism to facilitate eventual Russian withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova?

Obama and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly said they do not recognize a Russian "sphere of influence," but actions, or non-actions, speak louder than those words. Through its neglect of countries in the region except for Russia, the administration is ceding to Moscow exactly such a sphere. By some counts, Obama has spoken and met with his "friend and partner," President Dmitry Medvedev, more times than with any other leader, including on Thursday. He should use those occasions to lay down clear markers that Russian aggression toward and occupation of its neighbors are unacceptable. He also should start making "friends and partners" elsewhere in the region. Some of these leaders aren't the easiest to get along with, nor are they poster children for democracy and human rights -- but then again, neither are Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The writer is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the George W. Bush administration. The views expressed here are his own.


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