Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Diplomat sees tough times ahead with Russia

Richard Holbrooke speaks at writers’ conference

Express Staff Writer

As a result of the Russian invasion of Georgia, the next U.S. president will need to make "fundamental decisions" about relations between the two countries, longtime diplomat Richard Holbrooke told a capacity crowd at the Sun Valley Pavilion on Saturday night.

Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under the Clinton administration, spoke as part of the Sun Valley Writers' Conference. He said his ties to Sun Valley go back to the days that he and his children learned to ski here. Holbrooke arrived at the conference after spending a week in the former Soviet republic of Georgia at the invitation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

"Now they have crossed a line," Holbrooke said of the Russians. "Things (between the U.S. and Russia) cannot be the same when Russia has shown a willingness to do this."

Holbrooke said that after years of increasing annoyance at Georgia's pro-Western drift, Russia was looking for an excuse to move into the area as the first step toward realizing its ultimate goal there—the overthrow of Saakashvili.

"He drove Vladimir Putin nuts," Holbrooke said.

Holbrooke said the Russians exploited an ethnic conflict in Georgia, one of the many that have been simmering since the Soviet Union's 15 republics became independent upon its dissolution in 1991.

"Those borders had been arbitrarily drawn," he said.

He said South Ossetia, which neighbors Chechnya on Georgia'a northern border with Russia, had asked to remain part of Russia when Georgia became independent.

Holbrooke said Russia has been setting up an excuse to invade under the pretext of protecting South Ossetia's citizens by issuing tens of thousands of Russian passports there. He said the current situation was ignited on Aug. 1 when South Ossetian separatists killed six Georgian policemen, and a Georgian military response killed six Russians. On Aug. 3, Russia began moving troops into the area while local militias began an ethnic-cleansing operation against Georgians in South Ossetia. Georgia counter-attacked, a move that Holbrooke called a mistake, resulting in a major invasion by Soviet troops.

Russia contends that Georgian forces killed 2,000 people in South Ossetia, though, Holbrooke said, the non-profit Human Rights Watch puts that number at only about 100 deaths.

Holbrooke said Russia has refused to allow the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia to be addressed by the U.N. He said the Bush administration has applied no pressure on the Security Council to resolve the problem.

In fact, Holbrooke contended, little progress has been made over the past eight years on U.S.-Russian relations in general. Holbrooke said he wrote a piece in the Washington Post two years ago warning of an attempt by Russia to overthrow Saakashvili.

Even though he said John McCain is Saakasvili's "best friend" in the United States, he expressed more confidence in Barack Obama, a "pragmatic idealist," to achieve results with Russia. McCain, he contended, has too "belligerent" a mindset.

Holbrooke said Sen. Joe Biden was one of 35 members of Congress who visited Georgia after the invasion.

"It certainly illustrated to me why Joe Biden would be a great asset as vice president," Holbrooke said. "The Georgians were so moved to see Joe come in there."

Holbrooke contended that a bellicose attitude on the part of the Bush administration has alienated other countries.

"We can't lead unless people follow, and people don't follow us as much as they used to," he said.

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