Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Strong words from the US, but it’s up to the EU – for now

From the press conference held by Condoleezza Rice this afternoon on the South Ossetia situation:

“the way that Russia has brutally pushed this military operation well beyond the bounds of anything that might have related to South Ossetia calls into question Russia’s suitability for all kinds of activities that it has said that it wants to be a part of…

I’m going to France because we support very strongly the European presidency, which is France, in its mediation efforts. I think it’s best that those mediation efforts now be in the hands of the French. We’ll continue to support those…

I am not going to sit here and judge each Russian military operation. I am going to say that when you start bombing ports and threatening to bomb airfields and bombing a city like Gori and bringing troops in a flanking maneuver on the western flank of Georgia and tying up the main roads between Georgia – between Tbilisi and Gori, that’s well beyond anything that is needed to protect Russian peacekeepers. And that is why Russia is starting to face international condemnation for what it is doing.

This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government, and get away with it. Things have changed…

if you now look across Central and Eastern Europe, one thing that is also very different from just a few decades ago is that the countries that were liberated after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states and the aspirants – Albania, Croatia, Macedonia and others are now – have made the transition and are making the transition into transatlantic institutions. That allows them both to resolve their differences and to have a reason, a spur, for internal reform and further democratization, the appropriate relationship between civilian and military leaders and so forth and so on. That is why Membership Action Plan has been so valuable, and it’s why the United States continues to stand for Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine….

Now, I’m not going to try to speculate on Russian motives, but let me just say the following. To the degree that there was intended to be some message beyond the frozen conflicts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the message is not that Russia can use its military power in a brutal way against a small neighboring state. The message is that Russia has perhaps not accepted that it is time to move on from the Cold War and it is time to move to a new era in which relations between states are on the basis of equality and sovereignty and economic integration.

Now, Russia has said that that is the future that it wishes, that that is the future it wishes with the EU, that is the future it wishes with the United States and with any number of international organizations. So the message, unfortunately, that is being sent is that it is important to think again about whether, in fact, Russia will be committed to the kind of behavior that would make its involvement in those institutions appropriate.”

Now, what to make of that? The US administration has made its position very clear – complete and utter disapproval, couched in strong terms evoking Russia’s past unilateral belligerence during the Cold War (though not mentioning the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, you’ll note – *ahem*).

But these are the words of an outgoing presidency, with only a few months left to go. Does the disapproval of Bush and co really matter to Moscow? And will Sarkozy – as EU president – take up the mantle and continue the tough talk? Can the EU risk being as bombastic in its rhetoric when cordial relations with Russia are so important for Europe’s ongoing prosperity – and when the EU itself is split between those who take the American line and those, like Germany and Italy, more inclined to the softly-softly approach?

The diplomatic fall-out of this one promises to be very interesting indeed. How the West responds could be vital – but tough words may not be enough. The US is in one of its constitutionally-prescribed periods of impotence; with a member of the Security Council one of the parties involved, the UN is not an option; NATO has no jurisdiction, and is seen by some as one of the catalysts; Europe is currently divided. And yet it is to the EU that the world seems to be looking for leadership and mediation – albeit without much expectation of success.

This really is interesting. For advocates of a single EU foreign policy, and of greater EU involvement on the world stage, this is an ideal opportunity to prove that Brussels has got what it takes. I’m pessimistic of the chances so far, but if the US is content to take a back seat on this one (which means less of the public Cold War rhetoric cranking up the tensions, more behind the scenes support) – and considering Sarkozy’s apparently passable relationship with Putin and the Kremlin – they may just be able to pull something off.