The Cable

White House: Georgia’s security has improved due to the Russian reset

With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visiting Washington Thursday, the issue of Russia’s occupation of Georgia is now on the agenda. The White House doesn’t have any specific plans to advance its stated goal of getting Russian troops out of what Georgia claims as its own territory, but claims that the reset itself is already making ...

With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visiting Washington Thursday, the issue of Russia’s occupation of Georgia is now on the agenda. The White House doesn’t have any specific plans to advance its stated goal of getting Russian troops out of what Georgia claims as its own territory, but claims that the reset itself is already making the situation better.

"I guess the question is: Is Georgia and is the rest of Europe more secure today than they were — than Europe was when we first got here? And I think our answer is yes," said Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, in a conference call Tuesday.

Russian troops have been entrenching their presence in the disputed territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia since the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, in direct violation of the ceasefire agreement they signed to end the conflict. Russia is also among the only countries to recognize the regions as independent states.

"We consider their occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be illegitimate. And this is a position shared widely by the international community," McFaul said.

Basically, the administration’s plan for Georgia is to continue to make its position clear to the Russians, continue to send economic aid to the Georgians, and wait patiently for those two things to produce some result.

"In addition to having a discussion and an argument, I would say, a disagreement about this occupation of these territories, we also have an interest in stability in the region, reducing tensions, expanding monitors, expanding transparency about what Russia is doing in these territories," McFaul said. "And we’re perfectly happy to expand their understanding of what we are doing in terms of our cooperation with the Georgian government."

McFaul also pointed to the recent Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, which said that approval of NATO among ordinary Russians has gone up from 24 percent in 2009 to 40 percent this year.

"We think that that’s evidence that if you have a substantive dialogue with Russia about security issues, even difficult ones … that can improve the security for the United States, for Russia, and our allies in Europe and partners in Europe," he said.

The U.S. administration has made great efforts to de-link Georgia from other aspects of the U.S.-Russia relationship, arguing that that there is no reason not to make progress on issues where the U.S. and Russia share interests, such as arms control, nonproliferation, and economic cooperation.

"Even as we have differences, we can cooperate on areas of mutual concern, and of course the flip side of that is even where we cooperate on areas of mutual concern, we don’t paper over our differences either," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on the conference call.

But Rhodes also suggested that better interactions with Moscow improve the chances that the Georgia situation can progress.

"We think that having the dialogue is in the ultimate interest of resolving these disagreements," he said.

Even Russia experts who favor the "reset" approach, however, are calling on the administration to change its tone on Georgia.

"We have a two-pronged policy: One is banging on the table and getting the equivalent of ‘shove it’ from the Russians," said Samuel Charap, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "On other the other hand we have this traditional method of assistance to Georgia. I don’t think any of this is getting at the real problem or getting us any closer to ending the Russian occupation of Georgia."

The U.S. administration should reframe the Georgia debate around common interests with Russia, Charap argues, based on the shared desire to prevent a new outbreak of violence there.

The White House should also take advantage of the fact that the Russians aren’t happy with the status quo either, he said. Russian officials sometime refer to the disputed territories as a "suitcase with no handle," difficult to hold but too valuable to put down.

"At the end of the day, we don’t actually have any leverage over the Russians on this," Charap said. "That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to change what’s going on there."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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