August 29, 2008 / 1:18 PM / 10 years ago

Georgia was the "last straw" for Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A keen sense the West cheated Moscow out of promised warmer ties after the Cold War explains why Russia, recovered from post-Soviet collapse, has refused to be cowed over Georgia and demanded its views be heard.

People collect humanitarian aid in the South Ossetian village of Khetagurovo, some 10 km (6.2 miles) from Tskhinvali August 29, 2008. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

“It could have been Georgia or something else, but some kind of ‘last straw’ was waiting to come along,” one Kremlin official commented.

“We cannot endlessly retreat with a smiling face.”

Russia’s military response to Georgia’s bid to retake its Moscow-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and their subsequent recognition by Moscow, has fuelled Western speculation of a reborn Soviet empire striking back.

But things look totally different from Moscow, frustrated at what it sees as the West’s failure to put their relations on an equal footing and its attempts to encircle Russia with a new “cordon sanitaire”.

The bitterness dates back to 1990, when reformist Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, keen to launch a new age in ties with the West, agreed to pull out troops from East Germany and give the green light to German unification.

Russia says NATO reneged on a crucial promise.

“Moscow’s only condition was that NATO did not station troops in East Germany,” a top Russian diplomat who took part in talks said. “The promise was given, but soon forgotten.”

Some NATO officials challenge this, saying no such undertaking was given.

In the ensuing years relations with the West were further strained by NATO giving membership to Moscow’s Soviet-era satellites in Eastern Europe as well as to the ex-Soviet Baltic republics — Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Poland and the Baltic states have since become vociferous critics of Russia within the U.S.-led alliance.

In 1999 Russia protested in vain against NATO’s bombings of Belgrade in a military campaign which ultimately led to the West recognizing the independence of Serbia’s breakaway province of Kosovo earlier this year.

“We cannot base our actions on the opinion of a state whose budget falls within the statistical error of the U.S. budget,” a senior U.S. diplomat in Moscow told reporters at the time.

Top Russian officials have complained that Moscow’s cooperation with the West on key international issues like the fight against terrorism, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea have failed to translate into a qualitative change in relations.

“There is a feeling that the West treats Russia merely as a loser in the Cold War, which has to play by the winners’ rules,” Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president for eight years until this May, once told reporters.

NEW REALITIES

In the 1990s, when Russia’s economy was in ruins, Moscow hid its pride. But in the last eight years an economic boom has allowed a resurgent Russia to play a more assertive role in the global economy and international diplomacy.

Russia, a vital energy supplier for Europe and a lucrative investment location, decided it had sufficient levers and resources to speak in a different tone of voice.

The West failed to notice the change.

Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev have urged the West to treat Russia as an equal partner in a broader European context and review security arrangements that take account of its interests.

But Russian protests were waved aside again, Moscow says, when Washington decided to station elements of its missile defence system in Eastern Europe.

The move was seen by Moscow as a direct threat to its security despite U.S. insistence that the project is design to repel any potential attack by Iran and represents neither a political nor military threat to Russia.

The United States has also pushed heavily for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine — something anathema to Russia because of its deep historical ties with these countries with whom it shares direct borders.

Russia has sent many signals that its patience was running out but the West dismissed as a rhetoric a tough speech by Putin in Munich in 2007.

Similarly, the West failed to react to other warning shots by Moscow, such as resuming flights by its strategic bombers over the Atlantic and the freezing of Russia’s obligations under a key pact limiting conventional arms in Europe.

Russia’s intervention in Georgia has clear signaled that Moscow has finally drawn a red line.

Local residents of South Ossetia attend a rally in Tskhinvali August 27, 2008. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

“The ‘entente cordiale’ did not work,” Russia’s NATO ambassador Dmitry Rogozin has said, referring to accords between Britain and France signed in the early 20th century that put a line under centuries of hostility and conflict.

“Relations should now be pragmatic,” he said.

“The good performance of our army in Ossetia has already impressed our partners,” he added. “We should do everything to uphold this impression and end once and forever any temptation by our partners to resolve any problems by force..”

Writing by Oleg Shchedrov; Editing by Jon Boyle and Richard Balmforth

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