Standing up to Putin's Imperial Ambitions

U.S. President George W. Bush can again look deeply into the eyes of Russia's Vladimir Putin at their summit next week. But unlike at their first encounter, when Mr. Bush said he had seen Mr. Putin's soul and learned to trust him, the U.S. president this time must use the occasion to make clear that the dissolution of the Soviet Union is final and irreversible.

Right now, this means delivering at least three important messages. One is that Moscow should stop ongoing attempts to resubjugate Georgia and Moldova. Another is that there will be no Russian monopoly on the transit of Caspian oil and gas to Europe. Lastly, Mr. Putin should be told that it is inadmissible to corral Ukraine and Belarus into a Russian-led "Eurasian Economic Union" that restores Moscow's control over this part of Europe, on NATO's and the EU's new frontier.

Mr. Putin has placed those goals near the top of his agenda. He knows however that he can only win in those countries through Western default. And he anticipates--perhaps more clearly than some Western chancelleries--the economic and security complications that would ensue, for Europe and the U.S., from such a political default.

A victory for Moscow on these fronts would undermine the post-Cold War status quo in Europe; increase Western dependence on Russian energy deliveries; and enable Moscow to prevent post-Soviet countries from joining U.S.-led coalitions when Russia disapproves of the operation. We already saw how Moscow enlisted Armenia and several Central Asian countries to oppose Operation Iraqi Freedom. A repetition would restrict NATO's ability to conduct antiterror or peace-enforcement operations.

Georgia bears the brunt of Mr. Putin's pressure. That country--along with neighboring Azerbaijan--is key to the attainment of American policy goals in Eurasia. One key U.S. aim in the region is bringing Caspian energy supplies directly to Europe and securing access for U.S.-led coalition forces to Central Asia and the Greater Middle East.

At its own initiative and with Washington's encouragement, Georgia has engaged in a painstakingly conciliatory dialogue with the Kremlin. The result? Top Russian officials are telling Georgia to end its political and security relationships with the U.S. and NATO, accept Russian military bases for the long term, join the Russian-controlled CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union, and reconnect Georgia to Russia's pipeline and transportation networks. On these conditions, Moscow suggests that it might help settle the conflicts--which it had itself orchestrated--in Georgia's borderlands Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the meantime, Russia is practically annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow has recently handed out Russian citizenship to most residents there and controls the Georgian side of the Georgia-Russia border in the secessionist areas. Russia also maintains direct trade relations and transportation links with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ignoring Georgian sovereignty, and is stationing Russian troops in both areas. The Russian army holds two more bases deep inside Georgia, defying Georgian and OSCE calls for closure and withdrawal of the troops. In many ways, then, Kremlin policy toward Georgia seems no longer restrained by international law.

American economic and security assistance to Georgia has been crucial in keeping the country afloat and basically stable. The U.S. Train-and-Equip Program for Georgia's internal security forces is proving successful and ought to be extended, the country actively supports American antiterrorism operations, and the main export pipeline for Azerbaijani oil will (despite Moscow's opposition) by next year be laid via Georgia. But these common Western and Georgian interests will be at risk if the Kremlin's tactics force a change in Georgia's Western orientation. This is why Mr. Bush must tell Mr. Putin at the summit that Georgia's independence and security are American national interests that will be upheld.

In Moldova, Mr. Putin--through personal letters and high-level special envoys--is pressuring President Vladimir Voronin to legalize the unlawful Russian military presence and Russian secessionist authorities in Moldova's Trans-Dniester region. The scenario envisages handing those authorities a share of power in Moldova's central government under a federal formula, and guaranteeing such a settlement through a predominantly Russian military force (on top of Russian troops in Trans-Dniester's forces, which this federal setup would authorize).

Russian troops seem set to remain in Moldova past the December 2003 withdrawal deadline--the latest in a series of OSCE deadlines and resolutions that Moscow had breached, to no OSCE objection. Yet, the U.S. State Department prefers to relegate the issue to that same OSCE. Meanwhile, the European Union is dithering on a proposed peace-consolidation operation in Moldova. Only Mr. Bush has the authority to tell Mr. Putin at the summit that keeping troops in a Southeastern European country 1,000 kilometers distant from Russia, just on the basis of the Soviet past, is unacceptable.

In the Caspian basin, Moscow (in tandem with Tehran) opposes any trans-Caspian pipelines that would follow the most direct route from the eastern shore (by far the richest in oil and gas) to European consumers. At present, Russia exercises a near-monopoly on the transit of Caspian energy to Europe, and has assured itself the continuation of this monopoly for the next 15 years by signing contracts with the gas and oil producers.

All this flies in the face of Washington's Caspian energy policy, which promotes "multiple pipelines" as a major U.S. interest. It is indeed a Euro-Atlantic interest, because (as every U.S. administration since Ronald Reagan's realized) European overdependence on energy delivered from the Middle East and Russia could ultimately affect the political cohesion of the alliance. With all this in mind, Mr. Bush may well raise at the summit the issue of laying a westbound oil pipeline from Kazakhstan's offshore field Kashagan, the largest discovered anywhere in the world in the last 30 years, and whose commercial development is about to begin.

In a vast stretch of the former Soviet Union, from Belarus and Ukraine to Central Asia, Mr. Putin is now setting up a trading and monetary bloc of six countries under leadership from Moscow. This so-called Eurasian Economic Union seems intended generally to create a sheltered market for uncompetitive products, and more specifically to orient Ukraine's economy more firmly toward Russia as a means of mortgaging Ukraine's European future.

Despite all this, Mr. Putin will almost certainly seek at the summit U.S. support for Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization on lower standards and requirements. The answer should be that the Eurasian Economic Union and WTO membership are incompatible.

Two sets of expectations have been pinned on Mr. Putin: reformer and modernizer of Russia, and loyal ally to America in the struggle against terror and nuclear proliferation. He has deeply disappointed on both counts. Whether or not to "forgive" is really beside the point. Whether or not to reward would be a relevant question. There is no cause for rewards at this point. But even if rewards were in order, they should under no circumstances take the form of condoning the Kremlin's effort to reassemble pieces of its former power base in Eurasia.

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