[GEOPOLITIC] Russian Offensive Imperils U.S. Aims on Iran

Russia's widening military campaign in Georgia may end up threatening the U.S. strategic aims of preventing Iran from building a nuclear bomb and securing Central Asian energy supplies for Europe.

``A Russian-Georgian war will imperil U.S.-Russian diplomacy no matter what,'' said Cliff Kupchan of New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm. The U.S. and European reactions will make Russia ``more obstinate at the Security Council,'' where President George W. Bush seeks to impose tougher United Nations sanctions on the Iranian government, he added.

Georgia's role in a U.S.-backed energy corridor to Europe for oil and natural gas from former Soviet areas of Central Asia, a route that skirts Russia, also may be in doubt. That strategy counted on Russia respecting Georgia's sovereignty.

Bush returned from China and expressed concerns that Russian forces may be engaged in an effort ``to depose Georgia's duly elected government.''

As Russian troops, backed by air power, pushed deeper into Georgian territory yesterday, efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her European counterparts to broker a cease-fire showed no sign of bearing fruit.

Peace Mission

The U.S. is backing a peace mission led by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, who will meet with Russian officials in Moscow today and seek agreement on a package that includes a cease-fire. The offer also calls for the withdrawal of Russian forces, the dispatch of international observers to replace Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and a pledge not to use force, a senior U.S. official told reporters in Washington late yesterday.

The official likened Russia's military operation to past Soviet invasions of Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia and said it appeared the Russians were planning the incursion for some time.

American assumptions about Russian acquiescence in major policy issues may now be undercut, said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

The conflict is the ``first demonstration of Russian military power to break one of the former Soviet states, and that sort of gets to the stability of the framework that the U.S. thought was going to govern the post-Cold War world,'' he said.

`No Leverage'

Kupchan said the U.S. now has ``virtually no leverage on Russia.'' An envoy at a higher level than Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza, whose area of interest includes the Caucasus, should be sent to the region, he said.

Concerns about an outbreak of hostilities between Georgia and Russia had been building among American policy makers. In a visit last month to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Rice said it was ``extremely important'' for the separatist disputes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be resolved peacefully. She cautioned that violence ``should not be carried out by any party.''

Since the fighting erupted on Aug. 7, the U.S. has criticized Russia for a disproportionate use of force.

Troops From Iraq

The U.S. is facilitating the return of as many as 2,000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq to Georgia -- a move Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized as ``interference'' -- without planning to commit any military support of its own, according to officials.

If Russia topples Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, relations with the U.S. ``will be just that much worse,'' Kupchan said.

Beyond being a democratic ally, Georgia is a link in a U.S.-backed southern energy corridor that connects the Caspian Sea region with world markets, bypassing Russia. The BP Plc-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline is a major part of that route and runs about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Robert Johnson, a specialist in energy at the Eurasia Group, said Georgia's reputation as a viable, alternative route for transporting oil and gas from Turkmenistan and elsewhere has been ``compromised'' because of the conflict.

Georgian officials said Russia is seeking to oust Saakashvili, while Russia said it was protecting the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Goals `Achieved'

``Russia has achieved its goals,'' said Alexander Rahr, a Russia specialist at the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin. ``Georgia will not be able to reunite with its regions in the coming decades.''

Russia was in part provoked by the U.S.-led push to bring Georgia and Ukraine, both former Soviet satellites, into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In April, Brussels-based NATO committed itself to adding Georgia and Ukraine without providing a timeframe or a clear path toward membership.

This pledge, along with the recognition of Kosovo's independence by the U.S. and Western allies, angered Russia, which is against further NATO expansion. The Russian invasion may trouble pro-Western democracies the U.S. has cultivated in the region.

Given the limited U.S. response so far in the Georgia crisis, ``there's a lot more anxiety about the credibility and value of American relationships, including security relationships,'' Sestanovich said.

Ukraine Ties

The senior U.S. official who briefed reporters late yesterday said Russia might be looking to take its war beyond Georgia and signaled the U.S. will be announcing ways to strengthen ties with Ukraine and other states of the former Soviet Union. The official predicted those states will be determined to avoid losing the sovereignty won and maintained since the Soviet collapse.

NATO will meet in emergency session today, the U.S. official said.

While the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior U.S. officials cautioned Russia about damage to relations if it presses the assault on Georgia, a top Russian official disagreed about the fallout.

``Russian-American relations have a very important value for both our countries,'' Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at the UN late yesterday. ``We hope that without too much further propaganda we can move to the core of the matter of this difficult situation, and Russian-American relations will not suffer.''

Source: BLOOMBERG| By Janine Zacharia

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