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A divided West plays into Russia’s hands

Times Online
The Sunday Times
August 17, 2008

A divided West plays into Russia’s hands

Don’t give Moscow the power to switch our lights off

After Russian tanks rolled with impunity through the streets of Georgia, scattering that country’s army into humiliating retreat, comparisons were inevitably drawn with the cold war. The difference is that most of the time during the cold war the West knew how to respond to Moscow’s aggression. Nobody could say that this time. What are the new rules of the game?

The ceasefire plan drawn up by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and endorsed by Condoleezza Rice, America’s secretary of state, is a triumph for Vladimir Putin, who is still pulling all the levers, and confirmation of the humiliation of Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president. Russia set a trap for Mr Saakashvili in South Ossetia, which he walked straight into. The Sarkozy-brokered ceasefire plan, which gives Russia the right to roam up to 10km beyond South Ossetia into Georgia, makes a mockery of the Georgian president’s determination to “never, ever” permit the occupation of any of its territory.

Russia’s defiance persists. Moscow cocked a snook at Dr Rice’s insistence that the plan required the immediate withdrawal of its forces. At a joint press conference with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, insisted on his country’s right to intervene, not just in South Ossetia but also Abkhazia. Russia, he said, would continue to be the “guarantor of security” in the Caucasus and continue to take decisions to “unambiguously support” the will of “these two Caucasus peoples”. The claim is that the region is Russia’s sphere of influence.

Mr Medvedev also implicitly endorsed the warning of General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of Russia’s general staff, who said that Poland had exposed itself to the threat of nuclear attack from Moscow by agreeing with America to place a missile shield on Polish soil.

Now the Kremlin is talking of rearming its Baltic fleet with nuclear weapons.

Mr Sarkozy, Mrs Merkel and Dr Rice have made a poor show of it but Britain’s response has been even more feeble. The excuse is that London’s relationship with Moscow was already too strained for any UK-led diplomacy to have been effective. But Britain is poorly represented on the world stage. In such a crisis Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair would be working in close concert with the White House. As a champion of the accession of former members of the eastern bloc to Nato and the EU, our voice should be heard.

What should the West do? Even if there is an element of bluster in Moscow’s outrageous threats to Poland, the situation in Georgia is real, as is the threat of a new conflict with Ukraine, with the Black Sea port of Sebastopol a potential flashpoint.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, is right to say that Russia must face the consequences of her actions. But apart from depriving Moscow of invitations to G8 meetings, or blocking membership of the World Trade Organisation, the list of possible diplomatic consequences is not long and hardly damaging. The fundamental problem is that an undemocratic Russia wants to dominate the democratic states that were once part of the old Soviet Union. Their ambitions, however, lie with Nato and Europe. The West needs a tough but realistic strategy, fast.

If nothing else, this fortnight has confirmed that Europe cannot allow itself to be reliant on Russia for vital energy supplies. Both Shell and BP have been the victims of Russia’s resource nationalism and Ukraine and Georgia have been on the receiving end of Moscow’s use of the energy weapon. Fast forward a few years and Britain and other EU countries could find the lights going out, courtesy of Russia, and there would be little anybody could do about it.

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