August 20, 2008
Moscow’s relations with NATO were left in tatters on Tuesday (19 August) after the Kremlin dismissed the results of an emergency meeting of the military alliance on Russia’s actions in Georgia as “empty words.”
NATO foreign ministers gathered in the Brussels headquarters yesterday to discuss what actions it could take following the five-day war between Russia and its small Caucasian neighbour, Georgia, amid a hesitant withdrawal of Russian troops.
NATO – the Tuesday statement contained little of substance (Photo: nato.int)
But NATO itself is internally divided on how to approach energy-rich Russia. The EU relies on it for around a quarter of its energy needs, a factor said to influence the more cautious approach of Germany, France and Italy towards condemning Moscow, meaning the alliance cobbled together a political statement but little more.
It said it would freeze regular contacts with Russia and said there would be “no business as usual under present circumstances” while urging Moscow to “take immediate action to withdraw its troops from the area.”
There were no promises of troops in Georgia to give weight to the statement, however. Instead, the alliance said it would help with certain non-military “support measures.”
NATO plans to send a “team of 15 civil emergency planning experts to help Georgia assess damage to its civil infrastructure” and “support the re-establishment of the air traffic system and assist the Georgian government in understanding the nature of cyber attacks.”
There was no real push for giving Georgia and Ukraine NATO membership. French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner also said the EU would not rethink its support for Russia’s attempt to join the World Trade Organisation.
The lack of substance was immediately picked up on by Russia.
“On the whole, all of these threats that have been raining down on Russia turned out to be empty words,” said Dimitri Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to NATO.
Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, described the statement as “unobjective and biased.”
Russia continues to only pull back its troops slowly from Georgia even though it agreed to a France-brokered ceasefire over the weekend and announced the withdrawal on Monday.
The most recent pledge by Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, is that all bar 500 Russia troops would be pulled out of Georgia by Thursday and Friday.
But the promise was condemned by British foreign minister, David Miliband, who noted that it was already the third commitment on the withdrawal made by Russia.
“I think we should still engage with the Russians but in a hard-headed way, and we mustn’t allow the Russians to feel they are the victims of this affair when they are the transgressors,” he said in a statement in UK daily The Times.
The newspaper notes that a British diplomat had been stopped at a Russian checkpoint in Georgia and was told that he could not proceed without a Russian visa.
According to Georgian officials, Russian troops remain in charge of about a third of Georgia, including Poti, the Black Sea port, and Gori, a key city near the South Ossetia border, the breakaway region at the heart of the conflict.
Bloomberg news agency reports that Russia on Tuesday set out fresh conditions for its withdrawal.
“For the withdrawal of Russian troops to happen, two things are necessary: the pullback of Georgian forces to their barracks and, secondly, we need to be assured that our peacekeepers are not going to be attacked again,” Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said.
The conflict also dominated a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, where veto-holding Russia on Tuesday refused to support a draft resolution calling for immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia.
The political bartering comes just 10 days after the war started. On 7 August, Georgia attempted to retake South Ossetia, prompting a massive retaliation from Russia. The UN estimates the fighting has created 150,000 new refugees.
© 2008 EUobserver.com. All rights reserved. Printed on 20.08.2008.