Expert Speaks at Penick Village: Georgian Crisis 'Grave Concern'
One expert on the Russia-Georgia conflict says the situation in central Asia will prove to be an enormous challenge for U.S. foreign policy over the next several years.
Edmund Rhoads with the National Democratic Institute, an organization that assists emerging democracies, was in Moore County visiting family over the Labor Day holiday.
A Russian and international relations double-major at Bucknell University, he became interested in the region after participating in one of the first study-abroad programs in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Rhoads made a presentation on Georgia at Penick Village in Southern Pines on Sunday. He said in an interview afterward that the conflict is "obviously one of the most important world issues" the United States faces today.
A Richmond native who now lives in Washington, Rhoads just returned from the Democratic National Convention in Denver where he met with the Georgian delegation that was sent there. Sens. Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, the party's nominees for president and vice president, respectively, met with the delegation to discuss the situation.
"It was a very good experience," Rhoads said. "It was very satisfying. It gave Georgia a feeling that its relationship with the U.S. will be strong [regardless of the next administration]."
Georgia was also sending a delegation to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul this week.
Rhoads contended that the strife in Georgia is a result of ethnic, political and territorial tensions between Russia and its former Soviet satellite. A five-day armed conflict erupted in early August when Russian military forces stormed into the country to assist two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both regions have been recognized by Russia as independent states despite strong protest from the West.
Rhoads attributed Russian involvement in the region as an attempt to keep Georgia and its neighbors weak. He does not believe that Russia intends to absorb South Ossetia and Abkhazia or take back any of its former satellites, but simply desires to bully its neighbors, especially Ukraine and Poland, to strengthen its position.
"I don't think they want to extend their control," Rhoads said. "[But] it is in their interest to destabilize the region."
Rhoads also does not believe that the Russian invasion was a spur-of-the-moment event, but instead a carefully calculated move that had been planned for a long time. He said the timing was not accidental. The invasion happened to coincide with the Olympics in Beijing, the U.S. presidential campaign and summer vacation for European parliaments. He said it was obvious that the Russians wanted to act when the world was distracted.
Rhoads said the invasion is part of a renewed, aggressive ultra-nationalist policy set forth by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Despite the election of a new president in Dmitry Medvedev, he said that Putin is still running the country from behind the scenes. Putin has effectively rolled back democracy in the country, wiping out all of his political opposition and cracking down on the media.
"It is very dangerous to be an opponent of the Kremlin," Rhoads said, adding Putin controls all levers of power in the country. "There have been a lot of 'accidental deaths.'"
He said Putin is attempting to send an "enormous signal" to the United States that it is no longer the world's sole superpower. Rogue states such as Syria, Libya and Iran have begun to line up behind Russia to show they don't have to take orders from the Western powers anymore.
"Putin is trying to reassert Russian nationalism," Rhoads said. "It is of grave concern to the United States."
Russia has already cut all military ties with NATO as a result of the conflict. A missile defense agreement between the United States and Poland signed last week seems to have only exacerbated the tensions, as Russia has threatened Poland with a military response to the agreement.
Western threats of removing Russia's World Trade Organization (WTO) status have proved futile as well. Rhoads said that Russia has a "unique mindset" and doesn't care about its status in international organizations.
Rhoads said the Western response to the Georgian crisis has been strong but is still coming. There is talk of a one-billion-dollar aid package to the country that he believed would be of "vital importance" to the region.
He said it is vital for the United States to reach out to Europe to build partnerships to help contain this new wave of Russian aggression, and foreign policy will be difficult for either of the two presidential candidates.
"It is only the beginning of long and difficult years for U.S. foreign policy," he said.
Contact John Krahnert at 693-2473 or by e-mail at jkrahnert @thepilot.com.
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