Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hillary Clinton talks tough with the Kremlin, but Russia has won the geopolitical war

In Georgia for a brief visit on Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had some tough words for Russia, the mountainous country’s former imperial master. She denounced the Kremlin’s “occupation” of two Georgian regions that Russian troops seized during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and said it was high time Russian forces were pulling back. She also blasted Russia’s ongoing efforts to install permanent military infrastructure in the two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Her words came at a sensitive time in the run-up to the war’s second anniversary when tensions are running high on all sides. The reaction was perhaps as you would expect. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili did his best to show he felt reassured that Washington was not selling his country down the river in favour of Moscow. The two renegade regions issued furious statements insisting they were not being occupied by anyone. And Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, parried that it was pointless to involve Washington, arguing that Georgia needed to negotiate with the two breakaway regions if it wanted to make any progress on the issue. “Some people believe that it (the territory) is occupied, others believe it is free,” he said with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.

It was, in short, an example of the Obama administration’s new pragmatism towards Russia in action, a policy which essentially boils down to cooperation where possible but agreeing to disagree otherwise. As Mrs Clinton said: “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” There is no question that countries such as Georgia have, understandably, fretted that Washington’s much hyped reset of its relationship with Moscow might come at their expense. As such, Mrs Clinton’s visit was designed to reassure an old friend that he was not forgotten or forsaken. It probably worked, up to a point. Yet her visit and her rhetoric also underlined Washington’s impotence when it comes to Georgia.

She could only offer two pieces of advice to ordinary Georgians on how they could get the rest of their country back. Do not react to Russian provocations and grow your own democracy and economy so that people living in the two breakaway regions will one day want to reunite. It was sound advice but it was also a tacit admission that Russia had won the geopolitical as well as the hot war, that the territory is perhaps irreparably lost, and that there is nothing that anyone can do about it. Or as Mrs Clinton put it: “It’s a mistake to focus on the past.”


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