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Fear of Escalation

DW staff (nda)
August 27, 2008

As tensions between Moscow and the West rise, new fears surface over the possibility of Russian military action against other former Soviet states and a face-off between NATO and Russian naval forces in the Black Sea.

A long row of Russian tanks
Western leaders don't want to see Russian tanks rolling into other countriesImage: AP

After Moscow agreed to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's two rebel regions, as independent states amid widespread condemnation from the West, European leaders began discussing the possibility that Russia could set its sights on other neighboring countries on Wednesday, Aug. 27.

According to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Russia was had breached security accords by recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He also warned that Ukraine and Moldova were both vulnerable to Russian designs.

"We cannot accept these violations of all international law, of agreements on security and cooperation in Europe, of United Nations resolutions, and the seizing for the first time in a long time of one territory by the army of a neighboring country," Kouchner said in a radio interview. "It (Russia) is an international outlaw. That is not just the opinion of the European Union."

The leaders of the European Union's member states are due to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss their response to Russia's actions.

"The European Union, the 27 countries, 500 million people, Europe's economic power, must manifest themselves in this crisis to stop it and negotiate a political solution," said Kouchner, who would not speculate on what decisions the bloc may reach.

Germany sends observers

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the media at a joint news conference with Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili after their meeting in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008.
Merkel has been critical of Russia since the crisis beganImage: AP

In a move ahead of the combined EU meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet agreed on Wednesday to send up to 15 military observers to Georgia as part of an expanded OSCE mission aimed at enforcing a fragile ceasefire in the region. The German soldiers will wear uniforms but will not be armed, meaning their deployment does not require the approval of Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.

France's Kouchner was under no illusions that the OSCE observers would have an easy time and could be entering a region where escalation or expansion of hostilities were still real threats.

"It's all very dangerous. There are other objectives that one can suppose are the objectives of Russia, in particular Crimea, Ukraine and Moldova," Kouchner declared.

Europe identifies Ukraine, Moldova as possible targets

The southern Ukrainian region of Crimea is mainly populated by ethnic Russians and houses the Russian Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol.

Moldovan youths pass by the symbol of the Communists party in Chisinau Moldova
Russia's influence is strong in some areas of MoldovaImage: AP

Transdniestria, in eastern Moldova, fought a brief independence war after the Soviet Union's collapse but is not internationally recognized. It hosts a contingent of Russian troops.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned Moldova on Monday not to make the same mistake as Georgia by trying to seize back control of the breakaway pro-Russian region.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn joined the chorus of concern by saying that the European Union should clearly signal support for Ukraine's membership of the bloc to prevent it from becoming a Russian target.

"Ukraine could be the next target of political pressure by Russia, whose doctrine on its nearby neighbors is reminiscent of sphere politics," Rehn said in a speech to Finnish ambassadors.

The Georgian conflict was a stark reminder that the EU's biggest foreign policy challenge is relations with Russia, he said.

"But we have to acknowledge that Russia used military force against its sovereign neighbor and threatened its democratic government. Russia also cannot stand the idea that NATO would expand to its southern neighbors, so it purposely created tension in the region," he said.

Like Georgia, Ukraine has a pro-Western president who wants his country to join NATO, a move away from Moscow's sphere of influence which has angered the Kremlin. It also has a large Russian-speaking population, but is much bigger than Georgia.

Kiev stands up to Moscow and risks reprisals

NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer shaking hands with President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine
Ukraine is keen to seal its membership of NATO and the EUImage: NATO Media Library

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called Russia's decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "unacceptable" and threatened to raise the issue of a rent increase at the Black Sea Fleet's Sevastopol base. Under a 1997 pact, Russia leases the Sevastopol base until 2017 for an annual fee of $98 million.

Saying any country which was not part of international security agreements could be next to feel Russia's military might, Yushchenko said Ukraine must increase its defenses and push its bid for membership of the NATO military alliance.

"We regret this decision, for Ukraine it is unacceptable and therefore we cannot support this position," Yushchenko told Reuters in an interview. "Any nation could be next, any country. When we allow someone to ignore the fundamental right of territorial integrity, we put into doubt the existence of any country."

Yushchenko said Ukraine had leased the base at Sevastopol at below-market rates and it was time to think about raising the price. He said Kiev was also considering not renewing the lease when it runs out in 2017.

"We need to prevent Ukraine becoming involved in a military conflict," he said. "We don't intend to allow troops, which could be used in military action with a third or fourth country, to use our territory as a base."

These statements were issued as elements of Russia's Black Sea fleet shifted locations in a possible move to avoid a confrontation with a growing NATO warship flotilla near Georgia.

Russia wary of NATO naval build-up

A Russian Navy ship launches a missile during a naval performance, marking Navy Day, in Sevastopol, Crimea, Ukraine
The Black Sea fleet moves its firepower out of PotiImage: AP

Russian naval vessels operating off Georgia's coastline had moved from a station in the vicinity of the Georgian port Poti into "Abkhazian territorial waters," said Sergei Menialo, commander of Russia's Novorossisk naval base, according to an Interfax news agency report.

The shift took a group of some six to eight Russian warships that had been patrolling near the Georgian port of Poti out of the path of US warships reportedly planning to make a humanitarian aid delivery to the same location.

American officials on Tuesday said elements of the US 6th Fleet would bring humanitarian aid to Poti for delivery to Georgian refugees from the Russo-Georgian war.

The announcement put Washington on track for a Cold War-style naval confrontation with Moscow, as elements of Russia's Black Sea fleet have been enforcing a partial blockade on Poti since early August.

The Russian ships now off shore and tied up at Abkhazia, a renegade Georgian province adjacent to the Georgia-owned port Poti, was delivering humanitarian and other forms of aid via the Abkhazian port Sukhumi, Menialo said.

Multinational humanitarian fleet nears Georgian port

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter, Dallas at Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008.
A US Coast Guard cutter at the port of Batumi, GeorgiaImage: AP

NATO, led by the united States, began a dramatic increase to its naval presence in the Black Sea in mid-August, after Russian refusal to abide by a Russo-Georgian cease-fire plan engineered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The agreement among other conditions obliged all Russian and Georgian forces to return to pre-war positions -- a stipulation the Kremlin has in some cases ignored.

A NATO flotilla led by the American destroyer USS McFaul already has exceeded ten warships and will reach eighteen vessels in coming days, Kremlin officials citing Russian intelligence said Tuesday.

German, Polish, Spanish, and Canadian warships are among the members of the multi-national squadron being assembled in the Black Sea, according to Georgian media reports.

Cold War rhetoric but no Cold War?

A Russian MIDAS IL76 refuels MIG31 fighter planes over Norway on Friday Aug. 17, 2007.
Just like old times: Cold War exercises could resumeImage: AP

Russian Admiral Sergei Kasatonov admitted the growing NATO naval formation would soon be stronger than the Russian Black Sea warships off Georgia and Abkhazia's shore, but added that the Kremlin could in case of a confrontation deal with the Western vessels "using other forms of combat power, including aviation assets."

Kasatonov's comments made in Moscow were among the first public statements by a top Russian official of possible naval combat between Russian and NATO forces in the Black Sea.

The motivation for the increasing NATO naval presence in the region was "primarily political and not military," he added.

When asked about whether the build-up in the Black Sea meant that Russia could choose to confront the West rather than cooperate with it, French Foreign Minister Kouchner said, "That is not impossible."

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