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East vs. West

Jennifer AbramsohnAugust 27, 2008

As Europeans work to determine their future ties to Russia, the lack of a cohesive EU policy highlights splits in the bloc, experts say. They advised politicians to resist polarization by ignoring Russian chest beating.

Russian officers march during Victory Day parade at Moscow's Red Square, Wednesday, May 9, 2001
No one has an interest a modern-day Cold War, experts saidImage: AP

Western powers were struggling on Wednesday, Aug. 27, to figure out their next best move in the high-stakes game of geopolitical chess being played out in the Caucuses.

While Russia's approach before, during and after the 10-day military conflict that concluded with Moscow recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence has always been clear, the European response has been ambiguous.

The war "highlighted certain fault lines that existed within the EU," said Uwe Halbach, a Caucasus expert at the German Institute for Security Affairs (SWP).

Countries that more recently joined the 27-member bloc from central and eastern Europe tended to be more anti-Russian than France and Germany, he said.

"But now Russia's actions have created a shift toward voices critical of Russia," he added.

Russia has all the cards

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a mircophone
The West has been left with few options when it comes to dealing with MedvedevImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Still, the problem remains that no one in Europe seems have the leverage to take on an economically powerful, resource-rich Russia, Halbach said.

"There is no real military option, and no real economic option towards a Russia that is economically strong and doesn't depend on aid, like in the 1990s," he said. "The only field that remains is the diplomatic field."

But even there, Russia is standing in a position of strength. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has warned his country would consider severing ties with NATO and does not fear the possible resurgence of the Cold War.

"Russia is now in a state of diplomatic defiance and obstinacy," Halbach said, adding that every Western move deemed aggressive by Russia is then fed into this world view, creating a spiral of mistrust.

Many say that spiral started turning when the United States and many European Union members recognized Kosovo's bid for independence in February.

Russia back on global stage

Kosovars hold the national flag as they celebrate Kosovo's declaration of independence on Feb. 17, 2008
The West's recognition of Kosovo pushed Russia to take a hard line with GeorgiaImage: AP

After the West supported Kosovo, there was extreme pressure in Russia "to show the hard line" on Georgia independence -- even among leaders who, like Medvedev, aren't really hardliners, according to Stefan Meister, a Russia specialist at the German Council of Foreign Relation (DGAP).

"Medvedev is more interested in economic reform than he is in this conflict," Meister said. "But it is Putin and the hardliners who are making the decisions."

Meanwhile, the Georgia war is incredibly popular in Russia because it showed the West -- and itself -- that it has bounced back from its post-Cold War denigration of the 1990s.

"They had to say: 'We are back and we are strong,'" Meister said. "The process has its own dynamic. Medvedev had no choice but to recognize the breakaway republics."

With rhetoric high and diplomatic or political solutions nowhere to be seen, it is little wonder there is increased talk among observers of a renewed outbreak of Cold War hostilities.

Plea to avoid 'bi-polar world'

Georgian soldiers sit atop a tank
German diplomacy could help stop further conflictsImage: AP

For his part, Halbach said he hopes politicians will think hard before returning to a rigid East-West polemic.

"I don't hope the new raison d'etre for Europe would be a Cold War ... anyone who talks about that should think for a while about what kind of military and ideological confrontation that was -- between blocs -- and whether we want to move in that direction," he said.

The GDAP's Meister said policymakers should keep in mind that, despite difficult communication, neither the West nor Russia is really interested in a "bi-polar world."

"We are dependent on each other," he said. "The Russians see this ... I have a feeling they are very angry about the situation. Everything is so politicized."

Berlin's special role

Halbach, too, argues that Russia's frequently stated goal of becoming a "responsible, reliable international actor for the 21st century" was threatened by the Georgia situation -- a turn of events Russia will try hard to avoid.

In the end, most experts agree the only way out is through diplomacy.

Germany, in particular, has the best chance of talking with the Russians, because of historically open relations between the two countries, and because of its strength within the EU, Meister said.

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