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Officials: Reset Good for Georgia

In a commentary published on Foreign Policy Monday, Brian Whitmore argues that Georgia has benefited from Obama’s reset with Russia and is relatively safe now from the threat of another invasion. This is interesting in light of how Medvedev chose to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Russia-Georgia conflict this weekend: by promising South Ossetia and Abkhazia Russian support and proclaiming that he has no regrets over the confict. Georgia officials quoted in Whitmore’s piece nonetheless say the reset means that the US is in a better position now to exert quiet pressure on Moscow and to make its near abroad safer. Here’s an excerpt:

The fact that Georgians aren’t living in fear of a Russian invasion for the first time in years is an unexpected fringe benefit of U.S. President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy with Moscow. It also runs counter to allegations by Obama’s critics that countries on Russia’s periphery such as Georgia would suffer from Washington’s rapprochement with Moscow. These concerns have not merely been limited to Obama’s partisan rivals: Eastern European luminaries, including former Czech and Polish presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, as well as domestic critics such as former State Department official David Kramer, have raised concerns that Obama’s Russia policy would leave former Soviet states at Moscow’s mercy.

But after initially expressing similar anxieties, Georgian officialsnow say that closer ties between the former superpower rivals haveallowed Washington to exert quiet, yet effective, influence over Moscowand enhance Tbilisi’s security in the process.

Among those praising Obama is Giga Bokeria, Georgia’s deputy foreignminister and a close confidant of President Mikheil Saakashvili. “Theimmediate danger of a large-scale attack by Russia has been — if notcompletely eradicated — significantly reduced by a very activeposition by the U.S. administration,” Bokeria told me recently.

He credits Obama’s “very concentrated effort” to make Washington’sposition on Georgia clear to the Kremlin during his first presidentialvisit to Russia in July 2009. At the time, Obama said he had “a frankdiscussion” with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, during which heexpressed his “firm belief that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorialintegrity must be respected.”

Senior Georgian officials say the U.S. president was even tougherbehind the scenes. They claim Obama warned Medvedev and Prime MinisterVladimir Putin that Washington wouldn’t stand on the sidelines ifRussia launched another attack against Georgia. The White House wouldneither confirm nor deny that account, but people in Tbilisi saywhatever was said appears to have had an effect.

U.S. policy toward Russia has functioned not just with sticks, but withcarrots, too. Giga Zedania, a political scientist at Tbilisi’s IliaState University, says Russia “should have something to lose” if itattacks Georgia. “One of the problems with the Bush administration wasthat it had no leverage over Russia, because there was no cooperation,”she said. “When these links are established…Russia will have moreincentive to think twice before it does something like it did in 2008.”