Uh-oh, Russia. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has chosen U.S. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware as his running mate. Biden is chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and obviously has been selected to give Obama foreign policy chops he was lacking. Here are Biden’s views on Russia’s attack on Georgia, from the Financial Times on August 12th (in another statment on August 18th, he bluntly accused Russia of lying about Georgian atrocities and its general intentions in the country)
Russia Must Stand Down
Despite Russia’s overwhelming advantage in size and firepower in its conflict with Georgia, the Kremlin may have the most to lose if the fighting there continues. It is too soon to know with certainty who was responsible for the initial outbreak of violence in South Ossetia, but the war that began there is no longer about Georgia’s breakaway regions or Russian peacekeepers.
By acting disproportionately with a full scale attack on Georgia and seeking the ouster of Georgia’s democratically elected President Mikheil Saakashvili, Moscow is jeopardising its standing in Europe and the broader international community – and risking very real practical and political consequences.
The historic precedents in this case should trouble the Kremlin. The Red Army’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 succeeded in putting down an anti-Soviet rebellion, but simultaneously unmasked the brutality of the Soviet regime and tarnished Moscow’s reputation around the world. Similar consequences followed Soviet interventions in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. If Russia continues to overreach in Georgia, it might earn a small tactical victory. But it will do so at the expense of a monumental strategic defeat.
For years, Russian leaders have had a constant refrain with their American counterparts. Russia, we were told, wanted two things: international respect and to be treated as an equal by the United States. However, its leaders have evidenced few qualms about denying such treatment to nearby countries. The world has watched with concern as Russia has unleashed punitive economic and political measures against Estonia, Moldova, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Georgia when those countries’ actions deviated from the Kremlin’s wishes. Indeed, the single greatest obstacle to Russia’s full acceptance into the international system has been the Kremlin’s pattern of aggressive actions toward its neighbours.
Many international leaders have spoken out against these moves, but their concerns have been tempered by hope that Russia would eventually realise its extraordinary potential on the global stage. Despite the challenges in our relationship with Moscow, there has always been a strong desire to see the country’s epic traditions of achievement, creativity and sacrifice brought to serve the common good.
I have shared this ambition and in the past two months I sponsored two legislative measures intended to nudge Russia toward a closer, more constructive relationship with the United States, including action to allow for increased collaboration with Russia on nuclear energy production. Russia has also lobbied to repeal an old trade provision – the Jackson-Vanik Amendment – which currently blocks the country’s integration into the World Trade Organisation. The fighting in Georgia has erased the possibility of advancing those and other legislative efforts to promote US-Russian partnership in the current Congress. It may derail them permanently if Russia does not reverse course.
For Moscow, the most obvious casualty of the fighting could be the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 – supposedly the crown jewel in the country’s campaign to reinvent itself. Sochi is only a few miles from the border with Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia. Regardless of any political consequences, if fighting spreads, it could drive up insurance rates for the games to the point that it becomes prohibitively expensive to hold the Olympics in the region at all.
Russia may face other costly consequences for the violence. Vladimir Putin’s plans to make Moscow an international financial centre may evaporate as the prospect of sanctions on the country rears its head. Western financial institutions, which have done little to expose evidence of official Russian corruption, may start pursuing the issue much more publicly.
Georgia has made remarkable political and economic progress since the country’s transition to democracy. The fighting will inevitably slow that progress, and exact a heavy toll in lives and treasure. But, however severe the damage, Georgia will rebuild – and the United States and Europe must help. The stakes in this conflict are as high as the peaks of the Caucasus.
The only hope for preventing this crisis from becoming a calamity for Russia’s relationship with the west is for Moscow to immediately ceasefire, pull back its forces and agree to negotiations brokered by the international community – all steps that the Georgian government has agreed to. If the fighting continues, this moment could emerge as a turning point in the west’s relationship with Moscow, and deny Russia the international standing it seeks. That is not the future the United States or Europe want – but it is the future Russia may get if it does not stand down and live up to its responsibilities as a force for progress.