|Facing West's 'consequences', Russia holds cards of its own: analysts|
|August 24, 2008|
By Christopher Boian
In responding to the "consequences" the West has told Russia it faces for its actions in Georgia, the Kremlin will be holding a few potent economic and diplomatic cards of its own, analysts say.
Whether it opts to play them however will depend on what measures the United States and its allies choose to impose, and this will in turn impact both tactical and strategic cost-benefit calculus in Moscow as future events unfold.
Among the most obvious instruments of dissuasion at Russia's disposal are its energy resources, on which Europe relies heavily, though analysts are split on whether Moscow would put these into play in its confrontation with the West.
"The biggest card that Russia holds is its energy resources," said Alexander Goltz, military expert with the independent online magazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal.
"But there is a lot of mutual dependence here. Russia can't use these in a big way against opponents. If Russia stopped delivering oil and gas to Europe, it would cut off a major portion of its own national revenue," he said.
Goltz said strong popular support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev was anchored largely in the country's rising prosperity and argued most Russians would be loath to see that threatened.
"People are willing to share the anti-Western rhetoric from the authorities -- as long as they are not asked to make big economic sacrifices for it" as would happen if Russia were to suspend energy shipments to Europe, Goltz said.
Other experts disagree with that logic however, noting that the Kremlin has brought its control of energy resources to bear in international disputes in the past and might well consider doing so again in the current crisis.
"The energy card is clearly a big one to play," said Bob Ayers, a former US intelligence officer and now an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
Ayers acknowledged that any curtailment of energy deliveries to Europe would also cause a curtailment of income into Russian coffers, but argued that Russia could ride such a storm out for some time while Europe could not.
"It's a hell of a lot easier to sit in a warm house in Khabarovsk and watch the national treasury drop by billions than it is to sit in a cold house in France or Germany," he said.
Chris Weafer, an analyst with the investment bank UralSib, forecast that Russia may soon try to flesh out plans for a new "Gas-OPEC," highlighting Moscow's determination to boost its power through control of energy.
"One of the main upshots of recent events is that Moscow is expected to pursue its global energy objectives with greater vigor," Weafer wrote.
The United States and Europe, while equally worried, have reacted to the Georgia crisis in strikingly different ways and both will have Russia's energy might in mind as they formulate whatever "consequences" they plan to impose.
Apart from economic measures, the Kremlin also has options it could exercise in the diplomatic sphere -- options that could throw a spanner into the works for Western objectives in the Middle East and Central Asia, experts say.
On issues ranging from Iran's nuclear programme to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russian diplomacy, broadly cooperative with Western efforts in recent years, could switch track and hamper whatever progress has been made thus far.
Here, too, analysts say that the Kremlin would tread carefully because in fact it shares many of the West's fears about nuclear proliferation and resurgent Islamic extremism in parts of the world near its own borders.
Those fears however could be trumped by the Kremlin's worry and anger over NATO's seemingly relentless expansion around Russia and US missile defence plans in Europe, which Moscow insists are intended to subvert its power.
"The stage is set for confrontation," Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at London's Royal United Services Institute, said in a paper published on the think tank's website.
"That's not what the West wanted. But that's what the world will get," he said.
Ayers points out that "the days of the Cold War are basically gone" and, unlike the global influence once wielded by the Soviet Union and its allies, Russia's capacity to project power through diplomacy today is far more limited.
But he and others say that Russia is in a stronger position now than it has been in for at least a generation to absorb, at least in the short term, whatever "consequences" the West imposes on it over the conflict in Georgia.
In addition to economic and diplomatic levers, Russia has a range of passive and active military options, including increased naval and air patrols like those it introduced from last year, that it could draw on in theory.
But while Moscow has voiced worry about the sudden presence of US warships in the Black Sea, ostensibly to deliver aid to Georgia or join manoeuvres, no one expects current tension to erupt into any serious military confrontation.
Analysts noted that, in a stark departure from past practice by the administration of President George W. Bush, the United States quickly took "the military option" off the table as a possible response to Russia.
"The United States is at fundamentally maximum military capacity" at present as its forces fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ayers said. And Russia has now "made its point", so neither side has any interest in military confrontation.
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