How to Confront Russia

How to Confront Russia

By Ed Koch - August 19, 2008

The best advice to President George W. Bush on how to conduct foreign affairs with Russia is still the comment of Teddy Roosevelt, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Regrettably, the Washington, D.C. crowd, including the President and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are instead speaking harshly. They seem unaware that we no longer have a big stick in hand.

Our armed forces of nearly 200,000 are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and we literally are without reserves that could fight a war with Russia, that must, in any event, be avoided at all costs.

In the meanwhile, we have to make a decision. Do we want to engage Russia as a full partner in our efforts to keep the peace or do we want to humble them as we have for a number of years when we were aided by their declining economy. Their economy is no longer in decline. Instead, it is now booming based on oil and natural gas wealth. Russia now supplies European countries as a whole with two-thirds of their energy needs. The Russians have chafed for years as a result of the U.S. including the Baltic states and Poland in NATO and proposing NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine.

The Russians have made clear that they see the installation by the U.S. of radar in nations on Russia's borders to guide antiballistic missiles to their targets as a threat to Russia's missile system, notwithstanding the U.S. assurance that our ABM installations are intended to deal only with rogue nations such as Iran. The Russians recall how determined we were - successfully - to keep Soviet ballistic missiles out of Cuba. That crisis in 1962 was resolved with the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for a commitment - which we carried out - to remove American missiles from Turkey, Russia's neighbor. Clearly, they are as distressed as we would be if Russia were to include Venezuela and Bolivia in a military alliance.

What we are doing in lieu of speaking softly is having Condoleezza Rice denounce Russia, comparing it with the former Soviet Union when it invaded Czechoslovakia to put down the "Prague Spring" in 1968. It is important to remember that it is almost universally agreed that it was Georgia that commenced the current hostilities. This after the Georgia President Saakashvili was, according to the Times, "warned" by "Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried against escalating the conflict." Having ignored the advice, Saakashvili launched an attack on the Russian forces ending with Russian forces overwhelming the Georgian army which retreated to southern Georgia. The Russian forces in hot pursuit were asked by France's President Sarkozy to end the hostilities.

They agreed, but demanded and got the right to engage in military activities under certain circumstances, which by most accounts they have abused. Georgia started the hostilities, but we know that Russia was waiting for the opportunity to smash Georgia's military forces to serve as a lesson to states that were part of the Soviet empire and now want to join the West and NATO.

President Bush is compounding all the errors made to date by delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia with U.S. military personnel and with counterproductive rhetoric. An example of such rhetoric is the Pentagon's statement in The Times on August 14th: "On a day the White House evoked emotional memories of the cold war, a senior Pentagon official said the relief effort was intended to show to Russia that we can come to the aid of a European ally, and that we can do it at will, whenever and wherever we want." Surely we want to avoid at this time a physical conflict with Russia that could occur by accident or design.

In my view, these are the steps that we need to take: First, President Bush should meet with the leaders of Congress, and Senators Obama and McCain, to map out an agreed bi-partisan approach.

Whatever actions are required legislatively and executively to upgrade and enlarge our Armed Forces to deal with the situation should be taken and we should make sure that all of our American leaders in public office agree to speak with one voice and that is the voice of the president who under the Constitution conducts the foreign policy of this country, presuming there is an agreed upon policy.

The NATO nations in Europe who deserted us when we needed their military support in both Iraq and Afghanistan are now cowering in fear that the Russian bear is back with a ravenous appetite. Relying on our defense umbrella, they will now rush to join us and swear unwavering support, which, sadly, we can never fully rely on again.

Second, an immediate meeting should be arranged between Bush and Putin to afford us an opportunity to convince Russia that we are not their enemy. Our goal should be that we do for Russia what we would have them do for us were the situations reversed. Threats by both sides, physical and verbal, should immediately end.

In sum, the renewed hostility between Russia and the U.S. over Georgia has the potential of leading to mutual destruction. This is in no one's interest. The hostile rhetoric must be ratcheted down immediately, and we need to explore ways to work with the Russians in order to enhance global security, rather than undermine it.

Ed Koch is the former Mayor of New York City.

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