Bush Pushes His Luck With Putin

Who or what is Stratfor?

Stratfor describes itself in these terms – Stratfor is the world’s leading private intelligence service. Our global team of intelligence professionals provides our Members with insights into political, economic, and military developments to reduce risks, to identify opportunities, and to stay aware of happenings around the globe.

I guess no one knows it all about anything, but it makes interesting reading to browse Stratfor’s latest assessment of the outcome of the recent negotiations between Russia and the US in Moscow. On the surface these seemed full of hope with Russia making offers of help to support American efforts in Afghanistan, and offering a friendly hand to the US in exchange for being treated as an equal.

If anyone, however thought that George Dubya Bush was a spent force about to quit the Presidency in silence and shrink away into peaceful retirement, then let him think again.

Read on –

U.S. President George W. Bush, fresh from meetings with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on Wednesday, announced American support for Georgia’s NATO bid. Specifically, Bush announced that he would lobby the NATO allies to grant Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the first step toward joining the alliance.

Bush’s statement contained sufficient equivocation that MAP is hardly a foregone conclusion and formal membership is anything but imminent, but Russia has nonetheless been put on notice. NATO is preparing to march east yet again.
For the past month the West and Russia have been at a crossroads. After 10 years of heavy investment of political capital by the Kremlin into supporting its Balkan ally, Serbia, the West ran roughshod over Russian concerns by recognizing the independence of Kosovo, a renegade Serbian province. That decision blew a hole through the image of Russian power.

In the midst of an internal transition of power and reeling from the Kosovo defeat, Moscow needs a means of striking back at the West to demonstrate its potency. To flex its muscles, Russia can encourage separatism in U.S. allies, complicate the United States’ Middle East policy with selective weapons sales and technology transfers, and manipulate European energy supplies.

But Russia also knows that if it makes any missteps, Western influence could threaten its position on more fronts than the country can defend. Even with high energy prices bolstering its bottom line and a strong president holding the system together, the Kremlin knows Russia is but a shadow of its Cold War self. Meanwhile, it is not that the West is without vulnerabilities — weaknesses are available for exploitation from Finland to Turkey — but that during the last 18 years, Western institutions have only strengthened in absolute terms.

The West has the advantage of political, economic and military superiority, along with the flexibility to dabble anywhere along the Russian periphery, and with a little elbow grease and luck, even within the Russian Federation itself. Remember, it is Russia — not the United States — that is riddled with potential secessionist regions. And it is the United States — not Russia — that sits safely on the other side of an ocean from its potential competitors.

In short, there is no doubt in either Moscow or Washington that the two share the ability to swap blows in areas of critical importance. Efforts undertaken March 17 and March 18 saw a final attempt to head off a post-Kosovo confrontation when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to Moscow to determine whether the Russians and Americans could agree to disagree.

In the American mind, a Russia that agrees to sit on its hands while the United States sews up Iraq is preferable. And yes, we realize that “sew up” is a gross simplification even in the best of circumstances. Moscow’s position in the talks was more nuanced than Washington’s: Moscow offered to hold off on seeking retaliation for its defeat in Kosovo should the United States agree to hold off on pushing its NATO agenda deeper into the former Soviet Union. Ultimately, the two sides proved unable to hammer out a deal, and Bush’s statement is the proof that, for the Americans at least, confrontation is the order of the day.

As to how this will play out, I imagine Putin will be so angry about the US’ decision to press on eastwards, that he will be doing his best to destabilise the US’ operations in Kosovo. I cannot see Russia wanting the US to lose in Iraq or Afghanistan, as a resurgent Al Quaeda would be as much a problem for Russia as anyone else. The Russians might decide to play it long, anticipating the coming change in the Presidency, and keep quiet until Obama’s secure in the White House, and then unleash a charm offensive on him.

But with Bush this week sending weapons to arm Kosovan Albanian gangs, and with the negotiations in Northern Kosovo being handled so ineptly, it might be impossible to hold back the wave of anger that Bush’s moves (in conjunction with the EU) are unleashing in The Balkans. It seems that Bush hasn’t learned his lesson in Iraq. He so badly wants to register a geopolitical success to mark the end of his Presidency, that he’s raising the stakes. I cannot imagine that Serbia or Russia will be content to play along with their intended humiliation without reacting in some way.

UPDATE – from Associated Press

March 20, 2008 7:52 AM
MOSCOW-The Russian parliament is expected to warn this week that if Georgia joins NATO, Moscow could recognize the independence of two breakaway republics.

“It will be necessary to take all measures to protect the Russian citizens living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and investigate the possibility of speeding up the process of sovereignty … up to recognizing their independence,” according to a statement that the lower house of parliament is all but certain to adopt on Friday.

Most of the residents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist regions in Georgia, have Russian passports.

The statement does not specify other measures, but they presumably could include increasing the presence of Russian troops in both regions. Russian forces have been part of peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the republics broke away from Georgian central government control in wars in the 1990s.

Georgia is pushing to be placed on track for NATO membership at the alliance summit in early April in Bucharest, Romania. U.S. President George W. Bush strongly supports the move, but some other alliance members are expected to resist due largely to concerns about angering Russia.

The statement draft also calls on Russia to consider opening unspecified missions in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Trans-Dniester, a separatist region of Moldova. It was not clear if these would be formal diplomatic missions whose presence would constitute recognition of the regions’ separatist governments.

Russia does not currently recognize any of the separatist governments, but has developed close relations with them that many critics regard as de-facto recognition.

Last month’s declaration of independence by Kosovo, which has been fiercely opposed by Russia, led to speculation that the Kremlin would openly support South Ossetia and Abkhazia splitting from Georgia.

The draft statement straddles the question.

The Duma “respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldova,” according to the statement. But “Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Trans-Dniester, having built over the years their de-facto independent democratic states with all attributes of authority, have a much larger basis than Kosovo to aspire for international recognition.”

The Tap Blog is a collective of like-minded researchers and writers who’ve joined forces to distribute information and voice opinions avoided by the world’s media.

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