Avoiding Confrontation

nato050609.jpgFirst Russia extended their troops to the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, then there was a rebellion of a tank battalion, followed by the expulsion of two Canadian diplomats working for NATO.  Kind of like a tit-for-tat and tat in response to the ejection from NATO of two Russians accused of spying.  Moscow has blamed the Baltics for trying to upset the “reset button” deal with Washington, but it seems apparent that some of the hardline clans within the Russian leadership believe there is an opportunity to advance their interests in the Caucasus without any cost. 

Observers like Pavel Felgenhauer believe that Georgia is on the brink of yet another war with Russia.  Judging by rhetoric, he may be prescient.  Today Georgia’s envoy to the United Nations,  Alexander Lomaia, attacked the Russians and angrily denied their claim that the Georgian military was carrying out a military build up:  “The Russian ambassador’s statement is yet another example of Soviet-era propaganda which is not factual and whose sole purpose is to mislead.

There is a more convincing argument that what we are seeing is thesilovik response to Dmitry Medvedev’s sacking of GRU director General Valentin Korabelnikov,eager to demonstrate their influence by running interference on thepresident’s policy preferences.  Either way, it appears that Russia isseeking to test the boundaries of tolerance for this kind of conductwith the new administration.  These comments from an unnamed U.S. officiallead one to believe that Russia will be given a wide margin, and theAdministration is particularly eager to avoid any conflict with Moscowfor the time being in the months leading up to the signing of a newversion of the START treaty.  However that does not mean there won’t becosts in other areas.

Since the Geneva meeting, a senior U.S. official said signals comingfrom Moscow were uneven and it was unclear how far Russia wanted to goin improving ties.

“The challenge now is whether we can putmeat on the bones and fulfill the promise of the positive part of therelationship, leading with arms control,” the official said.

“Can the problems and areas of disagreement be managed or do they overwhelm it (the relationship)?” he told Reuters.

Renewed tensions this week in Georgia, with Tbilisi accusing Russia ofbeing behind a failed mutiny at a military base, could overshadow thediplomats’ talks at the State Department.

Russia fought a warwith neighboring Georgia last year which exacerbated tensions withWashington and its allies and sunk relations to a post Cold War low.

“”We don’t want to have a confrontation over it,” said the senior U.S.official. “But beyond the question of Georgia, there is a larger issueof Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence.”

Photo: The Canadian ambassador Ralph Lysyshyn enters Russian Foreign Ministryheadquarters in Moscow Wednesday, May 6, 2009. Russia will expel twoCanadian diplomats in retaliation for NATO‘srecent expulsion of two Russian envoys from the alliance’s headquartersin Brussels, the Canadian Embassy in Moscow said Wednesday. (AP Photo)