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Russia Reclaims Influence, U.S. Doesn’t Object

6 minute read
Simon Shuster / Moscow

Five years ago in the former Soviet Union, governments loyal to Moscow were falling roughly every six months. Those were the glory days of the “color revolutions” that brought new leaders to Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in quick succession between 2003 and 2005, all with the backing of the U.S. The region’s political center of gravity was tilting sharply toward the West. But now that trend has reversed. In the past three months, two of those governments have been ousted. Leaders far friendlier to Russia have taken power in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, displacing the Orange and Tulip revolutions, respectively. (Indeed, Kiev just agreed to extend Moscow’s naval lease on the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in exchange for cheaper gas; the previous Ukrainian regime had opposed the move.) The region’s last standing leader of a color revolution (the Rose), Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, is feeling lonelier than ever, and he has a warning for the Obama Administration: Don’t give Russia a free hand in the former Soviet bloc.

In an interview with TIME at his glass-domed presidential palace, Saakashvili laid out how he sees the situation: U.S. President Barack Obama has been put in an awkward spot by his drive to invigorate ties with the Kremlin, having to deal with the legacy of George W. Bush, who had infuriated Moscow by supporting the color revolutions and building close ties with the governments they brought to power. Now Obama is being urged by the Russians to back away from those relationships. “It’s not just about abandoning your ally Georgia. No, Russia is asking the U.S. to give back the Soviet sphere of influence,” Saakashvili says.

(See pictures of the Russia-Georgia war.)

In practical terms, this seems to require three things of the U.S. and its European allies: do not push for any more ex-Soviet countries to join NATO, do not openly support any opposition movements that seek to oust pro-Russian governments, and, more generally, make sure to consult Moscow before going ahead with any big initiatives in Russia’s backyard, especially military ones. Under the Bush Administration, all three of those were ignored, and relations with Russia became nastier than they had been since the Cold War. Obama, on the other hand, has been far more obliging, and his Administration believes Moscow is reciprocating — much to Saakashvili’s chagrin.

Nowhere has this been clearer than in NATO’s changing attitudes. In a statement on April 14, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged NATO countries to integrate Russia into their security strategy instead of seeing Russia as a potential threat. “The United States and Russia now clearly see eye to eye on a range of security issues. And we should use this new momentum to take further steps to enhance our common security,” Rasmussen said. Plans to put Ukraine and Georgia on a fast track to NATO membership have been put aside, and as a result, Russia is helping NATO get its supplies into Afghanistan. The American approach to missile defense in Eastern Europe has also changed. Whereas Bush plowed ahead with his plan despite Moscow’s fierce objections, Obama has invited the Kremlin to take part in a dialogue over the issue.

(See pictures of Obama in Russia.)

The Russians are taking notice. “It’s been very encouraging that the U.S. has refused to interfere in Ukraine’s domestic policy in the way it was doing during the Orange Revolution [in 2004]. Americans have also sharply cut their support to Georgia. At least they are not giving one dollar of military assistance, as far as I know, to Saakashvili,” says Sergei Markov, a longtime Kremlin spin doctor and a parliamentary deputy for the United Russia party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Officially, of course, the Obama team insists it has not turned away from U.S. allies for the sake of better ties with Moscow, and Saakashvili says he has “no reason to complain about day-to-day relations.” The U.S. has continued to criticize Russia for occupying about a fifth of Georgia’s territory after the two countries fought a war in 2008. That war marked a turning point for America’s broader strategy: it showed that Russia was willing to use force to defend its interests in the region, while the U.S. could be dragged into a war if it continued to oppose those interests to the end. Even the Bush Administration was not prepared to take that risk. “[Bush’s Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice told me that you must avoid an open military conflict with Russia,” says Nino Burjanadze, former speaker of the Georgian Parliament and now a leading opposition figure. “She told me, ‘We respect Georgia, but we will not go to war with Russia over Georgia.’ ”

(See 10 things to do in Moscow.)

That approach probably saved the U.S. from a military catastrophe, and now, under Obama, the U.S. has become even less willing to cheer Russia’s adversaries on. It has instead embraced Russia as a partner for global security, and the tactic is paying off. Concrete agreements have already been signed, most notably this month’s treaty to reduce the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals by a third. But it remains to be seen how countries like Georgia will fit into this budding relationship. Right now, it doesn’t appear congenial to the government in Tbilisi. As Russia continues to clamor to have Saakashvili removed from office, the U.S. seems to be keeping him at arm’s length. At this month’s nuclear nonproliferation conference in Washington, Obama snubbed Saakashvili’s request for their first one-on-one meeting, instead sitting down with the new Kremlin-friendly President of Ukraine, who had agreed at the summit to get rid of his country’s highly enriched uranium.

Sitting in his luxurious office a few days before the Washington summit, Saakashvili was in a dour mood and seemed a bit nostalgic for the Bush years. He is still the only leader to name a street after George W. Bush, and he says there is a lesson to be learned from the way the previous White House tried to “pre-empt” the risk of Russian aggression “rather than turn a blind eye and hope it goes away.” The threat Russia poses to his government, he says, is as strong as ever, and the West’s softer tone toward Russia is not going to help. “From my experience of the Russian perspective, every softening of language is perceived as weakness, as an acknowledgment of any strength Russia has locally.” That strength is clearly growing with the arrival of Kremlin-friendly governments in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and Washington seems fine with that as long as relations with Russia thrive. As for the color revolutions, they look to be fading away.

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