Russia May Focus on Pro-U.S. Ukraine After Georgia

Russia May Focus on Pro-U.S. Ukraine After Georgia

Now that Russia has humiliated Georgia with a punishing military offensive, it may shift its attention to reining in pro-Western Ukraine, another American ally in the former Soviet Union...

Now that Russia has humiliated Georgia with a punishing military offensive, it may shift its attention to reining in pro-Western Ukraine, another American ally in the former Soviet Union.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin`s first order of business likely will be to try to thwart Ukraine`s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

``The Moscow authorities will use this opportunity to remind Ukraine of the damages of allying itself with NATO,`` said Geoffrey Smith at Renaissance Capital investment bank in Kiev.

The U.S. has long seen Georgia and Ukraine as counterweights to Russia`s influence in the region. Opposition leaders in the two countries came to power after U.S.-backed popular protests in 2003 and 2004. Their ascension advanced an American strategy of expanding NATO to include both countries and securing energy routes from the Caspian Sea that bypass Russia. The BP Plc-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline to Turkey runs through Georgia.

The future effectiveness of that policy is now in doubt, with Georgia`s U.S.-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, 40, weakened by a five-day blitz that his American patrons were powerless to halt.

Medvedev, 42, and Putin, 56, say Russia began the offensive in response to a drive by Georgia to restore control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Now Russia has ousted Georgian forces from there and from Abkhazia, another separatist region, and destroyed much of the central government`s military.

Less Confident

``Georgia will be enormously more careful in its actions in the future, and much less confident of its relationship with the United States,`` said U.S.-based geopolitical advisory group Stratfor in a research note.

NATO is scheduled in December to review the two countries` bids to join the Western military alliance. NATO leaders in April promised Ukraine and Georgia eventual membership while declining them fast-track status. Russia, which has also denounced U.S. plans to station missile defense sites in former Soviet satellites Poland and the Czech Republic, says the expansion of the Cold War-era alliance to its borders is a security threat.

NATO should affirm the potential of Georgia and Ukraine to become alliance members in the face of Russia`s incursion into Georgia, senior U.S. officials said yesterday in Washington.

``Russia may find it convenient to raise the level of tension with Ukraine in the run-up to the December NATO review,`` Citigroup Inc.`s London-based David Lubin and Ali Al-Eyd wrote in a note to clients. ``If the conflict with Russia decelerates or reverses Georgia`s integration with the West, a similar fate could also affect Ukraine.``

Divided Country

Ukraine, a country of 46 million people that`s almost as big as France, has a large Russian-speaking population in the south and east that opposes NATO entry and looks to Moscow. Russian officials warn that if President Viktor Yushchenko pushes Ukraine into NATO, the nation may split in two. Russia has made its displeasure with Ukraine clear, cutting off gas supplies to the country 2 1/2 years ago and reducing deliveries last March.

Yushchenko, 54, yesterday flew to the Georgian capital Tbilisi to show solidarity with Saakashvili along with the leaders of four ex-Communist eastern European nations that joined NATO as a bulwark against Russia. Ukraine has warned it won`t allow Russian ships deployed off Georgia`s coast back into the Sevastopol naval base it has leased to Russia if they take part in hostilities.

Fighting for `Freedom`

``Freedom is worth fighting for,`` Yushchenko said in a transcript of his speech in Tbilisi posted on the Ukrainian presidential Web site. ``You are not alone. We have arrived to confirm your independence, your territorial integrity. Georgia is independent and will be independent always.``

The military operation in Georgia will serve ``as a warning`` to Ukraine that it should desist from petitioning for NATO entry, said Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ``Otherwise, Moscow may intervene to protect the allegedly threatened interests of the Russian population.``

An overly aggressive move by Russia against Ukraine might invite a backlash, said Renaissance Capital`s Smith.

``If it reacts too violently against Ukraine, then it risks provoking the reaction it least wants: trade and investment barriers for its companies, a more antagonistic approach to energy transit, and above all, it risks scaring Ukraine into seeking western protection,`` he said.

Oppose NATO Entry

Germany and France opposed NATO entry for Georgia, a country of 4.6 million people that is almost as big as the U.S. state of South Carolina, and Ukraine because of the Georgian separatist disputes and opposition to membership among some Ukrainians. They now will feel their concerns have been justified, said Cliff Kupchan of New-York based Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.

``Considering both European reticence and possible fears about Ukraine, I think it is very much on the slow track,`` he said, referring to NATO membership for both states.

The assault by Russian artillery, tanks and bombers inflicted significant damage on Georgia`s armed forces, which last month increased their size to 37,000 soldiers. Russia`s military has 1.13 million personnel. The U.S. trained and equipped Georgia`s military and in 2006 approved almost $300 million in aid over five years.

Ukraine has about 214,000 soldiers, which include 84,000 paramilitary troops, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

``A substantial part of our military power has been destroyed,`` said Georgian National Security Council chief Kakha Lomaia. ``However, we did preserve the core of our army, and have managed to regroup it close to the capital.``

Ships Blown Up

An airbase in Senaki was destroyed and three Georgian ships were blown up in the Black Sea port of Poti, he said.

A month ago, about 1,000 U.S. soldiers joined 600 Georgians and 100 from Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia in joint exercises at the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi. Russia repeatedly bombed the base during this month`s war.

``The American role in the region has been weakened,`` Jan Techau, a European and security affairs analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said in a telephone interview. ``It`s a reassertion of Russia`s dominant role in the region.``

Ian Hague, a Bank of Georgia board member and fund manager with $1.8 billion in the former Soviet Union, said the attack on Georgia discouraged Western investments in energy infrastructure by raising the risk premium.

``It`s somewhat reminiscent, in 1939, when Stalin attacked Finland,`` former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told Bloomberg Television. ``I think this kind of confrontation is the best kind of answer as to why they are seeking to be members of NATO.``

By Henri Meyer, Bloomberg

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