U.S., Israel Part Ways On Georgia Conflict
08/13/08

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For Israel this week, the outbreak of war between Georgia and Russia has been all about Iran. As Tblisi and Moscow agreed to a cease-fire Tuesday in their five-day conflict over two disputed territories, Russia was still bristling with anger over U.S. policies and statements on the issue. But thanks to Israel’s decision to limit its arms sales to Georgia, the Kremlin had only kind words for Israel, Washington’s closest ally, as the guns of war died down. “We are appreciative of Israel’s position of not selling offensive weapons to a conflict area,” Russian diplomat Anatoly Yurkov told The Jerusalem Post that day. On CNN, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the UN, also made a point of praising Israel for “reconsidering its relationship in the arms area with Georgia” and compared Jerusalem’s reaction to the conflict unfavorably to Washington’s. But for Israel, the key statement came from Yurkov, the No. 2 official in Russia’s Tel Aviv embassy in Tel Aviv, temporarily filling the top spot as Russian Ambassador Petr V. Stegniy vacationed. Moscow, he suggested, was likely to take Israel’s reactions to the conflict into account when weighing its own arms sales to Iran and Syria. For Jerry Hough, the Brookings Institution’s former senior Russian specialist, that signals further possibilities. If the White House alters its stance on NATO membership for Georgia and certain other issues, he said, “Russia may moderate and pay a price” on Iran. But to Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, a hawkish Washington think tank, “It is unrealistic for us to expect that Russia will assume a constructive stance on Iran even as it itself violates significant established international norms. All of which suggests that the UN track is well and truly dead, as far as pressuring Iran is concerned.” Israel arms sales to Georgia over the last decade have been estimated at some $300 million to $500 million. They have included spy drones, infantry weapons and electronics for artillery systems. Israel has reportedly helped upgrade Soviet-designed Su-25 ground attack jets assembled in Georgia. And former Israeli generals serve as advisers to the Georgian military. The arms dealers involved have also included important figures, such as former Likud cabinet minister Roni Milo. But Jerusalem pulled its trainers out quickly and vowed to restrict itself to selling Georgia defensive weapons after hostilities broke out last Thursday. “The day we will want to prevent a future deal with Iran, our hands must be clean,” a senior political source told the daily paper Haaretz. By contrast, the U.S., which has also been selling arms to Georgia and training its troops, flew 2,000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq, where they were part of the U.S.-led coalition, into Georgia to join the fight with Russia. It is a parochial issue, in one sense. When two nations go to war, other countries inevitably assess the implications for their own particular interests. But in this case, Israel’s particular interest has much wider ramifications. Israel regards Iran’s drive to develop its nuclear capabilities as a threat to its very existence. And it views cooperation from Moscow — which has been supplying Iran with arms and help in its nuclear efforts — as crucial to halting Iran’s drive. Jerusalem, like Washington, also seeks the Kremlin’s cooperation in imposing tighter UN sanctions on Iran. If such sanctions fail, Israeli officials have warned, their only alternative will be war. Now, with reports of continued violence and Russian troops still present in Georgia proper despite the cease-fire, Jerusalem’s hopes for avoiding this choice becomes part of a three-dimensional geopolitical chess game. And the key players are Russia and the United States, leaving Israel at the margins with interests that, in some ways, seem to diverge from those of its closest partner. “The prerequisite for any movement on the UN sanctions front is that Moscow and Washington be on speaking terms,” said Berman, who is an Iran specialist. “And this has the potential to reconfigure in a very negative sense how the two sides think about each other.” But others, such as Yossi Alpher, a former analyst for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, see the situation in more complex terms. “What happens in Georgia is just a tiny part of this,” he said. “What happens with missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic is probably more important. My sense is that Russia is sending a message. It feels very hard pressed on all its Western borders. And it saw what Georgia was doing as part of this broader campaign to whittle away at its influence over anyone on its borders.” Alpher and others evince a practical awareness of other issues Russia views as crucial to its own security — issues that Washington has brushed aside as Moscow’s anger and sense of grievance have risen, along with its power and wealth, thanks to huge oil revenues in recent years. During the 1990s as NATO, the Western military alliance against the old Soviet Union, admitted Poland, the Czech Republic and other former satellites of the Soviet Union on Russia’s western border, a weakened Kremlin protested vehemently but could do nothing. It was not mollified by NATO’s declarations that it no longer viewed Russia as its adversary. But President Clinton at the time stated that NATO would not expand beyond Eastern Europe. The Bush administration, however, has strongly backed NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, on Russia’s southern border. Despite Russia’s adamant opposition, it is also plans to install anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, bordering Russia. Moscow rejects Washington’s stand that the anti-missile defenses — scored by critics as of dubious value — are meant only to counter a looming nuclear missile threat from Iran. Earlier this year, the United States and the major powers of Western Europe also recognized Kosovo as an independent country over angry Russian protests. Kosovo, effectively a second state for Albanians, was a breakaway territory from Serbia, Russia’s closest ally. Russia explicitly retaliated by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian breakaway provinces in which it was acting as a peacekeeper, thereby inflaming Georgia — part of the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities last week. Now, thanks to Iran, Israel finds it has an interest in — but little influence over — how all these issues have affected Russian attitudes. According to the Israeli daily paper Haaretz, Israeli officials have urged their American counterparts in recent months to tone down their other disputes with Moscow to focus its efforts on obtaining Russia’s backing against Iran. Among other things, they suggested that Washington offer to drop its plan to station a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russia agreeing to stiffer sanctions against Iran. The administration rejected this idea, the paper reported. “It seems to me if there is a deal with Russia on Iran, it will come in the next administration fairly early,” said Hough, the Brookings Institution’s former top Russian specialist. “It will involve the United States giving up on NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.” In addition, he said, “The new administration has got to decide whether to go ahead with missiles defenses in Eastern Europe.” Hough said the likelihood of such a deal is great if Democrat Barak Obama is elected president but almost nil if Republican John McCain, a longtime hawk on Russia, takes the White House. But the outbreak of hostilities in Georgia found Obama, too, calling for “a membership action plan for NATO” in his statement of support for Georgia on Monday. That sounded pretty close to the position of McCain, who told Fox News, “I would move forward at the right time with the application for membership in NATO by Georgia… As you know, through NATO membership, if a member nation is attacked, it is viewed as an attack on all.” In the short term, a lot will depend on whether Russia’s goals in Georgia prove limited to asserting its sway over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two territories that seek to break off from Georgia; or if, as Georgia, its supporters and hawkish critics of Russia charge, Moscow seeks to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government or retake all or part of Georgia proper — a country it ruled until 1991 as part of the former Soviet Union. “It’s clear there are two narratives contending with each other in Washington,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “One is that the Russian bear is back, and it’s time for the United States to double down and realize it again has a major competitor in Moscow. “The second narrative sees it as much more complicated. It puts the onus on both Georgia and Russia. But the ‘complicated’ narrative disappears if Russia goes to Tblisi.”

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11/23/2009 - 11:22

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