Kremlin's PR Machine Falling on Deaf Ears

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A serious communications breakdown between Russia and the West over the Georgian crisis has escalated into an unwillingness to speak to each other in normal diplomatic terms. Russia and the West are simply shouting past each other.

In a late but honest effort to present Russia's reasons for rolling back Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's army and recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave lengthy interviews to major international television networks during the past two weeks. They argued that the country was responding to Georgian aggression in which Russian citizens and peacekeepers were killed. They also explained that Moscow did not have any designs to conquer its post-Soviet neighbors.

This public relations effort fell on deaf ears, however. In Western capitals, particularly in Washington, Georgia continued to be depicted as a "peace-loving young democracy" that was "unwittingly dragged by Russia into a war." Moreover, the Western media seized upon Putin's admittedly awkward speculation in his CNN interview about whether the administration of President George W. Bush had a political interest in orchestrating the Georgian war to help the Republican candidate for president, John McCain.

On the other hand, the European Union summit declaration last week did not denounce Saakashvili's assault on Tskhinvali, and this led the Kremlin to conclude that it was justified in taking action against Georgia and should pursue its interests as it sees fit. "Our position on South Ossetia is highly moral, and we are right," First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov told Vedomosti. "We only want one thing: to be secure within our borders. We accept your values but will do everything our way."

Moscow is betting that the West will eventually come to its senses and accept the new reality about Georgia, while quietly nudging Saakashvili out of office. The Kremlin will probably accept a solution that puts the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and EU peacekeepers in the extended security zone in Georgia, as long as Russia is able to keep its military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But all bets could be off if the United States and NATO start supplying Georgia with sophisticated weapons. Russia would then have to decide whether it needs to take pre-emptive action to deny the "madman of the Caucasus" the capability to wage war again. It would be a tough decision, but not one that Medvedev would rush to explain to the West.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government relations and PR company.