Georgia Conflict's Effects On U.S.-Russia Relations

Russian troops are still blocking entrance to the city of Gori in war-battered Georgia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds talks Friday in Georgia. George Friedman, the head of Stratfor, a private intelligence company, talks with Renee Montagne about the future of U.S.-Russia relations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is seeking Georgia's signature on a cease-fire deal with Russia. France brokered the truce earlier this week. Russian troops remain deep inside Georgia a week after the conflict erupted in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The conflict raises questions about the future course of U.S. policy towards Russia. And yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out using military force, though he issued this warning.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Secretary of Defense): If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.

MONTAGNE: Defense Secretary Gates. To talk about the future of U.S.-Russia relations. We called George Friedman, the head of Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company. Good morning.

Mr. GEORGE FRIEDMAN (Head, Stratfor): Good morning. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Now, Secretary Gates said yesterday, he thinks Russia wants to reassert its great power status over its traditional spheres of influence. Can Russia actually do that?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, it certainly has done it in Georgia. And right now it has a substantial window of opportunity to do this while virtually all U.S. forces are tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. really doesn't have very many military options with which to respond, as we see in Georgia.

MONTAGNE: Although, may I ask, would it even consider military options? Defense Secretary Gates suggested it would not even consider them had they been available.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The point is they are not available. And the Russians are aware that they are not available, and they certainly want to redefine the order of the former Soviet Union. They're not satisfied with it; they think the United States has been exploiting it; and this is one of their ways of pointing out to the Americans that the way things have been since the fall of the Soviet Union are not the way they're going to continue to be.

MONTAGNE: Well, so far, the U.S. has pulled out of joint military exercises with NATO and Russia that were planned. So, what is the U.S.'s leverage here?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The U.S. has relatively little leverage in the short run. One of the things they did yesterday was sign an agreement, that they were going to sign anyway, with the Poles, about missile defense system.

MONTAGNE: With Poland.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Actually, there are very few things that the United States can do directly, beyond rhetoric. One of the things that's interesting is that Gates said this may change, adversely affect, U.S.-Russian relations for years. That's precisely what the Russians want.

The Russians feel the U.S.-Russian relations have been very poor for the past two or three years. And they regard the Georgian event as a direct result of American intrusion into their sphere of influence.

MONTAGNE: Now, the peace plan that Secretary Rice is proposing would allow Russian troops to patrol in Georgia, beyond their breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This sounds like a concession to Russia.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, it's concession that can't be taken away. The Russians have made a unilateral decision that they're going to do this. You know, they're using the Kosovo example as the foundation for their behavior. In Kosovo, the United States carried military actions without United Nations approval unilaterally, imposed reality on Serbia, created an independent Kosovo in opposition to Russian desires, and simply felt that it had the right - along with the European powers - to redefine the situation in Serbia.

The Russians are saying that if the United States and Europe have that power in Serbia, the Russians have the same power in Georgia.

MONTAGNE: You know, just - we have seconds to go - but this Polish agreement on the U.S. anti-missile program; is that suggesting that Russia is driving away its former client states?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The client states are very worried about growing Russian assertiveness. They have relied on the United States to protect them from the Russians. And one of the things the Russians wanted to do was to demonstrate that American guarantees are meaningless. They did that in Georgia, and this is forcing the Ukrainians, the Balts, ultimately even the Poles and others, to really ask the question what does it mean to be an ally of the United States if the United States can't bring force to bear.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: George Friedman is the head of geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor and the author of "America's Secret War."

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U.S. Toughens Rhetoric On Russia-Georgia Conflict

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy. i i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) Thursday. Rice stopped in France to talk with foreign officials about a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy on the Russian-Georgian conflict. She heads to Georgia Friday. Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) Thursday. Rice stopped in France to talk with foreign officials about a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy on the Russian-Georgian conflict. She heads to Georgia Friday.

Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR

As U.S. government officials struggle to get a good sense of what is happening on the ground in Georgia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is starting to play a more visible role on the diplomatic front. She was in talks in Paris Thursday, again calling on Russia to pull back.

"It is time for this crisis to be over," Rice said. "The Russian president has said that their military operations have halted. We would hope that he is true to his word and that those operations will halt."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says that Rice will ask Georgia to sign a cease-fire document that he negotiated with the Russians when she heads to Tbilisi Friday. But the peace plan on the table appears to make major concessions to Russia.

The Cease-Fire Plan

Georgians have raised concerns that part of the French peace plan is too vague, giving Russia room to maneuver and keep some forces not only in the breakaway South Ossetia region, where this conflict began, but also in other parts of Georgia.

Georgian Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze has said his small nation is ready for a cease-fire, but only under certain conditions.

"We don't want any cease-fire document to become the legitimization for Russian occupation of Georgian territories," Sikharulidze said.

Officials traveling with Rice told reporters that the six-point plan she's bringing to Tbilisi Friday gives Russians a limited right to patrol in Georgia — beyond the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia where they already had peacekeepers.

But Rice did not mention that in public, insisting that both the U.S. and France respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.

"We will work very hard to see if we can bring an end to this crisis," Rice said. "It is long overdue. Too many innocent people have died. And Georgia, whose territorial integrity and independence and sovereignty we fully respect, must be able to get back to normal life."

Ignoring Russia's Bluster

U.S. officials say they are ignoring what they call the latest bluster from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov told reporters Thursday that the world should forget about Georgia's territorial integrity because South Ossetia and Abkhazia cannot be forced back under Georgian rule.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that it is clear this conflict is about more than those regions and that this is Moscow's attempt to regain its sphere of influence. He said there should be consequences for Russia's aggression in Georgia, though he ruled out the use of U.S. military force.

"The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," Gates said. "I see no reason to change that approach today."

A Threat To U.S.-Russian Relations

Gates has been tasked with a humanitarian operation and says that it appears the Georgian port in Poti is intact and supply routes are open. He warned that if Russia does not step back, U.S. and Russian relations could be hurt for years to come, and so too will Russia's aspirations to join international institutions.

"Everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we — as we look ahead," Gates said. "And I think Russia's got some serious work to do to try and work its way back into the family of nations that are trying to work together and build democracy and build — and build their economies."

Perhaps the first sign of change happened in Poland, where the U.S. finally got the agreement it wanted to station U.S. missile interceptors as part of a missile defense system. Poland had been reluctant to go along with the U.S. plans for fear of angering Russia, but it initialed the deal Thursday.

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