(CNSNews.com) – Moscow criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday for describing two breakaway Georgian regions as territories “invaded” and “occupied” by Russia, but behind Clinton’s tough words during her visit to the region lay a tacit admission that Russia has won this particular dispute.
Clinton’s visit this month to five countries formerly dominated by the Soviet Union was aimed in part in allaying allies’ concerns that Obama’s “reset” of relations with the Kremlin would come at their expense.
Nowhere has this caused greater anxiety than in Georgia, whose attempt two years ago to settle by force a long running rebellion in South Ossetia and Abkhazia backfired badly.
Russia sent in troops to prop up the two regions’ pro-Moscow administrations and declared them to be “independent” states. (The only countries to have followed Russia’s lead in recognizing their “independence” are Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific island nation of Nauru.)
Not only did the incident cost Georgia one-fifth of its territory, it also set back President Mikhail Saakashvili’s campaign to seek NATO membership. Leery of upsetting Russia – which strongly opposes further NATO expansion – many European members of the alliance cooled on their support for Georgia’s bid after the brief August 2008 war.
Keen to stave off criticism – not least from conservatives at home – that the Obama administration is too soft on Russia, Clinton in Tbilisi Monday used the words her hosts wanted to hear.
Standing alongside Saakashvili, she stated, “President Obama and I and other American officials raise our concerns about the invasion and occupation with Russian counterparts on a consistent basis.”
Clinton also dismissed the notion of a Russian sphere of influence in the region: “We are living in a time when independent sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions about organizations they wish to join, to make determinations that are in the best interests of their own people and how they see their own future.”
Saakashvili, whose government has since late 2008 been appealing to other countries, especially in Europe, to declare Abkhazia and South Ossetia “occupied” territory, applauded Clinton for doing so.
He also said that Obama had been first to say the regions had been invaded, contrasting that to language favored in the past – a “disproportionate use of force.”
(The Bush administration did, in fact, use both terms. “Quite clearly, Russia invaded Georgia,” then State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Sept. 16, 2008. “And we have talked before about the Russian response being completely disproportionate to events that preceded their invading Georgia.”
“Russia invaded another country,” Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said in New York a week later. “It is trying to change international borders by force.”)
Predictably, the de-facto leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia protested Clinton’s comments, insisting that the Russian troop presence was by invitation.
The foreign ministry in Moscow also disputed her use of the term “occupation” – on the basis that Russia has no military presence “in Georgia,” only in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it said had seceded from Georgia.
For his part, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin remarked, “While some think that [South Ossetia] is occupied, others think it is liberated.”
‘No difference on the ground’
But if Saakashvili regarded Clinton’s statements as a victory, he may have missed the underlying message during her visit that the U.S. can do little beyond speak its mind.
In a town hall discussion with women leaders in Tbilisi earlier the same day, Clinton said the U.S. would “continue to speak out” but added, “I am not going to stand here and tell you that this is an easy problem, because it’s not.”
The main advice she offered her interlocutors there was that Georgia not provoke another confrontation with Russia and that it work on becoming a “more vibrant, effective” democracy and economy, and so emphasize the contrast between what Georgia had to offer and the situation faced by people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But, in a tacit acknowledgement that there was no short-term solution to the territorial dispute, she said the commitment should be “particularly for the next generation, for the children and grandchildren who should have the right to grow up in a free, sovereign, peaceful Georgia whose territorial integrity is restored and respected.”
Asked about this during her appearance with the Georgian president, Clinton said she was hopeful of a resolution in the near future, adding, “but whether it’s in months or years, it’s important for Georgia to continue its modernization reform efforts.”
The U.S. and Russia have participated in 11 rounds of talks in Geneva on the Georgia situation, and Washington continues to press Russia to abide by commitments it made in an Aug. 2008 ceasefire agreement, including a pledge by parties to move their forces back to where they were stationed before the fighting began.
But the administration has also made clear that its differences with Russia over Georgia will not impact its improving relations with Moscow in other areas.
A clear sign of delinking came when Obama submitted to Congress in May the proposed text of a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia. The president wrote that “the situation in Georgia need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding with the proposed Agreement” – reversing a determination made by President Bush weeks after the Russia-Georgia war.
Addressing an event at a Washington think tank on June 10, Obama’s Russian and Eurasian affairs advisor, Michael McFaul, said the administration’s Russia policy sought “to deliberately avoid linkage between issue areas that have nothing to do with each other.”
McFaul insisted that the administration was not “ignoring” Georgia, saying, “We are doing these things in parallel, but we are not linking them.”
Clinton told the town hall in Tbilisi Monday that there had been “positive movement” in U.S.-Russia relations on several fronts, citing the new START arms-reduction treaty and efforts to contain the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. At the same time, she said, the U.S. continued to criticize Russian actions which it believed were wrong, as in Georgia.
“I think that the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time,” she said.
In the view of Jamestown Foundation senior fellow Vladimir Socor, the symbolic use of the “invasion” and “occupation” wording was the major result of Clinton’s six-hour visit.
“Beyond symbolism and semantics, however, the change does not seem to reflect any pro-active U.S. policy to reverse Russia’s conquests,” he wrote in the foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
“In Tbilisi, Clinton declared ‘steadfast’ support for Georgia’s territorial integrity while urging Russia to respect the 2008 ceasefire agreement, withdraw the troops to pre-war lines, and allow humanitarian access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Socor said. “Such rhetoric makes no difference on the ground, however.”