The US “forgets” about Georgia and makes up with Russia


Presidents Obama and Medvedev put their names to a joint statement on US-Russia relations [1], when they met in London on 31 March 2009, prior to the G-20 summit.  This is, we are led to believe, a concrete manifestation of the “reset” in US relations with Russia, promised by Obama.


The aspect of the statement which made headlines was their commitment to negotiate a new nuclear arms reduction treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which expires in December 2009.  The aspect of the statement that should have made headlines was the complete absence from it of the word “Georgia”.


It is true that the statement does contain a coy reference to “the military actions of last August”.  But the “reset” is not made conditional on Russia withdrawing its forces to the positions they occupied prior to “the military actions of last August” or on Russia reversing its subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, separate from Georgia.


Clearly, the US has followed the EU in accepting the fait accompli established by Russia in Georgia last August (see my article The EU “forgets” about Georgia and makes up with Russia [2]).


This isn’t a major departure from the stance of the Bush administration, which went a long way down this road last December, when it didn’t block NATO’s resumption of meetings with Russia within the NATO-Russia Council.  But, on that occasion, NATO condemned Russia for its “disproportionate military actions during the conflict with Georgia in August” and for its “subsequent recognition of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia, which we condemn and call upon Russia to reverse” [3].


By contrast, the Obama-Medvedev statement doesn’t contain a word of US disapproval of Russia’s actions, nor any demand that Russia reverse what it has done.  All it says is:


“Although we disagree about the causes and sequence of the military actions of last August, we agreed that we must continue efforts toward a peaceful and lasting solution to the unstable situation today. Bearing in mind that significant differences remain between us, we nonetheless stress the importance of last years six-point accord of August 12, the September 8 agreement, and other relevant agreements, and pursuing effective cooperation in the Geneva discussions to bring stability to the region.”


The August 12 accord is the ceasefire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy, which was supposed to be implemented in accordance with the September 8 agreement.  It hasn’t been implemented apart from the Russian withdrawal from Georgia outside South Ossetia or Abkhazia.  The September 8 agreement included the provision of EU monitors, which Russia hasn’t allowed into either South Ossetia or Abkhazia. The “Geneva discussions” on a political settlement have, as yet, made no progress even on humanitarian issues.


Russian help

Why has Obama “reset” US policy with Russia at this time?  The fundamental reason is that he needs Russian help with supplying its troops in Afghanistan.  In addition, he hopes to persuade Russia to be more vigorous in pressurising Iran about its nuclear activities.


An alternative means of supplying troops in Afghanistan has become a priority in recent months because NATO supply lines overland through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan have been increasingly subject to armed attack and confiscation.  And this supply problem will grow as the extra 20,000+ US troops promised by Obama arrive in Afghanistan in the coming months.  Until recently, the overland route through Pakistan carried 85-90% of all supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan.


As long ago as April 2008, prior to the events in Georgia, Russia agreed in principle to allow supplies to be transported overland through Russia.  But it wasn’t until 19 February 2009 that the first US shipment of non-military supplies left the Latvian port of Riga by train en route to Afghanistan via Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan [4].  It is expected that there will be 20 to 30 US shipments a week.  Other NATO countries are using this route as well.  On 2 April 2009, just after Obama and Medvedev met in London, the BBC reported that Russia had agreed to discuss the transit of US military supplies to Afghanistan across its territory [5].


(The US is also seeking out a route further south, avoiding Russia, through Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea at Baku, across the Caspian Sea and then through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but this is a much less convenient, and slower, route.  According to the New York Times [6], in addition Pentagon and NATO planners, “have studied Iranian routes from the port of Chabahar, on the Arabian Sea, that link with a new road recently completed by India in western Afghanistan”, a route that is “considered shorter and safer than going through Pakistan”.)


Manas airbase

Another operational problem facing NATO in Afghanistan is the possible loss of the use of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan.  This base, which is leased by the US, is vital to NATO operations in Afghanistan, functioning both as a gateway for NATO troops (including British troops) moving in and out of Afghanistan and as the base for the air tankers that perform in-flight re-fuelling on aircraft operating over Afghanistan.


Manas is the only airbase available to NATO in Central Asia.  Its use of the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in Uzbekistan was terminated in 2005.  On 20 February 2009, the Kyrgyz Government gave the US six months notice to quit Manas.


The Kyrgyz Government’s decision to evict the US seems to have been prompted by Russia, presumably with the objective of increasing its bargaining power over the US.  A few days earlier, President Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan traveled to Moscow and returned with the promise of a $2bn loan and a non-refundable credit worth $150m [7].  He immediately proposed to Kyrgyzstan’s parliament that the US lease on Manas be terminated.  On 19 February 2009, the parliament voted overwhelmingly to do so and the next day the US was given notice to quit the base.


This is probably not the end of the matter and the US may well continue to have use of Manas after the notice expires in August 2009.  But, most likely, Russia is in a position to demand a price of one sort or another for fixing it.


It would be an exaggeration to say that Russia has a stranglehold over US operations in Afghanistan, but the US must be very uncomfortable about how much leverage Russia is currently in a position to exert.



Needless to say, there is nothing about this crucial issue in the Obama-Medvedev statement.  The short paragraph on Afghanistan begins:


“We agreed that al-Qaida and other terrorist and insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a common threat to many nations, including the United States and Russia.”


and ends:


“Both sides agreed to work out new ways of cooperation to facilitate international efforts of stabilization, reconstruction and development in Afghanistan, including in the regional context.”


Curiously, this seems to reflect the earlier US “strategy” of building a state in Afghanistan rather than the new, more limited, “strategy” announced by Obama on 27 March 2009, which purports to have “a clear and focused goal … to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan” [8].



On Iran, the statement is rather mild, but with the usual contradiction.  It begins by recognising that “under the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear program”, which is true – Article IV(1) of the NPT says:


“Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes … .” [9]


The statement continues by saying that “Iran needs to restore confidence in its exclusively peaceful nature”.  A reasonable implication from this is that Iran can continue its current nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment, providing it manages to convince the US and Russia that these activities are not for military purposes.


However, the statement goes on to “call on Iran to fully implement the relevant UN Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors resolutions, including provision of required cooperation with the IAEA”.  These resolutions require, inter alia, that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment, which is Iran’s “inalienable right” under the NPT, providing it is for “peaceful purposes”.  And, of course, despite many years of inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities, the IAEA has found no evidence that its nuclear activities are for other than “peaceful purposes”.


This is the contradiction at the heart of the demands made on Iran: why should Iran be required to halt nuclear activities which are its “inalienable right” under the NPT, when there is no evidence that they are for other than “peaceful purposes”?


Russia and China have supported these Security Council resolutions against Iran, but have used their influence to restrict the severity of the economic sanctions applied by them.  It remains to be seen if Russia is now prepared to see Iran sanctioned more severely, if the US demands it.


The Iran section of the statement ends:


“We reiterated their commitment to pursue a comprehensive diplomatic solution, including direct diplomacy and through P5+1 negotiations, and urged Iran to seize this opportunity to address the international community’s concerns.”


(The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – plus Germany).


On 8 April 2009, the US State Department announced that the P5+1 has asked Iran for a meeting and that “the US will join P5+1 discussions with Iran from now on” [10].  This decision to negotiate face to face with Iran is a break with the practice of the Bush administration.  However, there has been no discernible change in US policy towards Iran.


Obama has been widely praised for rhetorical gestures towards Iran, but they contained some extraordinarily arrogant remarks.  For example, in his Nowruz (New Year) message to Iran on 20 March 2009, he said:


“The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.  You have that right – but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.  And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.” [11]


In the opinion of the US President, it is apparently in his gift to decide if and when Iran (and other states in this world?) is fit to take “its rightful place in the community of nations” (whatever that means).  And this “place” cannot be reached through “terror or arms”.


This from the president of the only state in this world that has used nuclear arms, a state that supported Iraq’s aggression against Iran in the 1980s that caused upwards of a million Iranian casualties, from a state that in the last decade has come half way round the world to invade and occupy states that border Iran to the east and west and is responsible for death and destruction on an industrial scale in those states.  This is from the president of the state whose predecessor declared Iran to be a member of the “axis of evil” and continually threatened military action against it, as did (and does) US ally Israel.


Missile defence

The US proposal to deploy a missile defence system in Eastern Europe, ostensibly to counter Iranian nuclear missiles, has been a bone of contention between the US and Russia for the last few years.  The Czech Republic has agreed to host the radars for this system (despite overwhelming popular opposition) and Poland has agreed to host the (as yet undeveloped) interceptor missiles.


There are grave doubts about whether this system will be effective (as there is about the system already deployed on the West coast of the US, ostensibly to counter threats from North Korea).


The deployment of these missile defence systems would have been in breach of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty the US signed with the Soviet Union in 1972.  So, in preparation, the US unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty in June 2002.  The Treaty barred the US and the Soviet Union from deploying nationwide defences against strategic ballistic missiles.  The reasoning behind this, as stated in the preamble to the Treaty, was the belief on both sides that “effective measures to limit anti-ballistic missile systems would be a substantial factor in curbing the race in strategic offensive arms and would lead to a decrease in the risk of outbreak of war involving nuclear weapons” [12].


During his election campaign, Obama expressed doubts about whether these systems would be effective and value for money.  In a speech in Prague on 5 April 2009, he said:


As long as the threat from Iran persists, we intend to go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe at this time will be removed.”  [13]


The message here to Russia is clear: help us deal with Iran’s (alleged) ambition to have a nuclear weapons system and then there will be no need of a missile defence system in Eastern Europe.


On the question of missile defence, the Obama-Medvedev statement is opaque.  It says:


“While acknowledging that differences remain over the purposes of deployment of missile defense assets in Europe, we discussed new possibilities for mutual international cooperation in the field of missile defense, taking into account joint assessments of missile challenges and threats, aimed at enhancing the security of our countries, and that of our allies and partners.  The relationship between offensive and defensive arms will be discussed by the two governments.”


In that, the US seems to concede that missile defence in Eastern Europe is a matter for discussion with Russia, at the very least.  If the US is still dependent on Russia for supplying its troops in Afghanistan, when the time comes for the decision to be made, then Russia may have a veto.  On the other hand, to avoid Russia having such leverage, the US could withdraw from Afghanistan.


Euro-Atlantic security treaty

On 6 June 2008, in a wide ranging speech in Berlin, President Medvedev floated the idea of “drafting and signing a legally binding treaty on European security in which the organisations currently working in the Euro-Atlantic area could become parties” [14].   He expanded upon the idea in a speech at a conference in Evian on 8 October 2008 [15], in the presence of President Sarkozy, who voiced approval for holding an OSCE conference about the proposal this year.


NATO likes to think of what it calls the “Euro-Atlantic area” as its bailiwick.  By this, it means not just North America and Europe, but also the territory in Asia that was formerly part of the Soviet Union.  50 states in this area are associated with NATO in what it calls the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, including states such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, which are a long way from Europe and the Atlantic.


(As NATO has expanded eastwards its full name – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – has become increasingly inappropriate and, as far as possible, “Euro-Atlantic” has replaced “North Atlantic” in the language it uses.  Euro-Atlantic may not be an ideal description but at least it is better that North Atlantic.  So, these days, NATO communiqués are peppered with references to “Euro-Atlantic security” and the aspirations of states to “Euro-Atlantic integration”, that is, NATO membership.)


Clearly, Medvedev’s floating of this idea is an assertion by Russia that the Euro-Atlantic area isn’t the sole preserve of NATO.  Other security organisations do exist in this area, for example, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Russia and 6 former Soviet states (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), of which Russia and China, plus Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are members.


It wasn’t surprising that the US and the UK were less than happy when Sarkozy expressed approval for Medvedev’s proposal, because putting it on the table concedes the point that NATO hasn’t got exclusive rights in the Euro-Atlantic area.  And, if it was ever realised in practice, it would restrict NATO, including US, freedom of action in the area, for example, in deploying a missile defence system in Eastern Europe.


It was therefore surprising to read the following in the Obama-Medvedev statement:


“We discussed our interest in exploring a comprehensive dialogue on strengthening Euro-Atlantic and European security, including existing commitments and President Medvedev’s June 2008 proposals on these issues. The OSCE is one of the key multilateral venues for this dialogue, as is the NATO-Russia Council.”


In this, the US seems to have conceded that Medvedev’s idea should be open for discussion.



David Morrison

14 April 2009