Friday, August 29, 2008

Russia Stands Alone

So much for Russia's hopes of igniting a united front against western power and leadership. Russian President Dimitri Medvedev went to the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seeking the organization's backing for the Russian invasion of Georgia and subsequent recognition of the separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Instead, the SCO refused to lend its support for the Russian endeavor, choosing instead a neutral stance, urging all parties to resolve their differences without war. The SCO furthermore endorsed the basic concept of territorial integrity.

It's difficult to see how Russia made such a strategic mistake, and why it expected to get the SCO's support. The members of the SCO are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China. It's China's presence that makes Russia's move confusing. It seems likely that Russia thought that the opportunity to stand up to the US and NATO would be so appealing that China would jump at the chance. But given China's own domestic problems with separatist regions in Taiwan, Tibet and the Uighurs in the west, it seems foolish to ask China to support a principle that would encourage those regions to break away from China and that would allow outside parties to intervene to support their independence. Furthermore, China does not support any the independence of any separatist regions outside of China, as NATO did with Kosovo and as Russia did in Georgia. And finally, China has become increasingly interdependent on the US and western institutions, like the WTO. It should have been obvious to Russia that China would not back this move.

The move by the SCO reveals the limitations of Russian power and appeal. Russia simply does not have the strategic or ideological attraction that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Few states are looking towards Russia as a viable alternative to the US and western leadership and institutions. While Russia's invasion of Georgia may pay off in the short-term, in the long run, Russia will be increasingly alienated from the global community which will, hopefully, be a price Russia would prefer not to pay.

The US should quickly move to exploit the decision by the SCO. The US should be telling China that Kosovo was a one-off, unique situation that will not be repeated, especially not in China. The US and NATO will not certainly not be willing to go to war with China to "free" Tibet or even Taiwan, and the cost of doing so diplomatically is also far too high a price for the west to pay. If China can come to see Russia as a dangerous, free-wheeling state that is a threat to international norms, Russia will be even more isolated. And that may help force Russia back in line.

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