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Georgia Conflict's Effects On U.S.-Russia Relations


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is seeking Georgia's signature on a cease-fire deal with Russia. France brokered the truce earlier this week. Russian troops remain deep inside Georgia a week after the conflict erupted in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The conflict raises questions about the future course of U.S. policy towards Russia. And yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out using military force, though he issued this warning.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Secretary of Defense): If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.

MONTAGNE: Defense Secretary Gates. To talk about the future of U.S.-Russia relations. We called George Friedman, the head of Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company. Good morning.

Mr. GEORGE FRIEDMAN (Head, Stratfor): Good morning. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Now, Secretary Gates said yesterday, he thinks Russia wants to reassert its great power status over its traditional spheres of influence. Can Russia actually do that?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, it certainly has done it in Georgia. And right now it has a substantial window of opportunity to do this while virtually all U.S. forces are tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. really doesn't have very many military options with which to respond, as we see in Georgia.

MONTAGNE: Although, may I ask, would it even consider military options? Defense Secretary Gates suggested it would not even consider them had they been available.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The point is they are not available. And the Russians are aware that they are not available, and they certainly want to redefine the order of the former Soviet Union. They're not satisfied with it; they think the United States has been exploiting it; and this is one of their ways of pointing out to the Americans that the way things have been since the fall of the Soviet Union are not the way they're going to continue to be.

MONTAGNE: Well, so far, the U.S. has pulled out of joint military exercises with NATO and Russia that were planned. So, what is the U.S.'s leverage here?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The U.S. has relatively little leverage in the short run. One of the things they did yesterday was sign an agreement, that they were going to sign anyway, with the Poles, about missile defense system.

MONTAGNE: With Poland.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Actually, there are very few things that the United States can do directly, beyond rhetoric. One of the things that's interesting is that Gates said this may change, adversely affect, U.S.-Russian relations for years. That's precisely what the Russians want.

The Russians feel the U.S.-Russian relations have been very poor for the past two or three years. And they regard the Georgian event as a direct result of American intrusion into their sphere of influence.

MONTAGNE: Now, the peace plan that Secretary Rice is proposing would allow Russian troops to patrol in Georgia, beyond their breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This sounds like a concession to Russia.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, it's concession that can't be taken away. The Russians have made a unilateral decision that they're going to do this. You know, they're using the Kosovo example as the foundation for their behavior. In Kosovo, the United States carried military actions without United Nations approval unilaterally, imposed reality on Serbia, created an independent Kosovo in opposition to Russian desires, and simply felt that it had the right - along with the European powers - to redefine the situation in Serbia.

The Russians are saying that if the United States and Europe have that power in Serbia, the Russians have the same power in Georgia.

MONTAGNE: You know, just - we have seconds to go - but this Polish agreement on the U.S. anti-missile program; is that suggesting that Russia is driving away its former client states?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The client states are very worried about growing Russian assertiveness. They have relied on the United States to protect them from the Russians. And one of the things the Russians wanted to do was to demonstrate that American guarantees are meaningless. They did that in Georgia, and this is forcing the Ukrainians, the Balts, ultimately even the Poles and others, to really ask the question what does it mean to be an ally of the United States if the United States can't bring force to bear.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: George Friedman is the head of geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor and the author of "America's Secret War." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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