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'End of the West?' Maybe not, thanks to Moscow

Analyst who raised the question says Russia's actions in Georgia may revive NATO and EU.

August 25, 2008|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — Three years ago, an influential French academic named Francois Heisbourg made a splash with a book with a provocative question as its title: "The End of the West?"

Heisbourg asserted that the traditional concept of the West, defined as a strategic entity formed by the United States and Europe, belonged to the past. After this month's tepid response by Western powers to the Russia-Georgia clash, many on the continent were inclined to agree.

Not so fast, says the very man who raised the question. Heisbourg is now taking a contrary view that sharpens the debate. Russia blundered in seeking revenge for perceived humiliations at the hands of what it sees as a soft and weak West, he said in an interview Friday.

As a result, Russia provided precisely the kind of urgent catalyst that can renew the ailing transatlantic alliance, he said.

"There's a strong element of paradox," he said. "The one thing that could re-create the West is Russia acting in opposition to the West. . . . NATO had lost its way. The Russians have created a situation which gives NATO a raison d'etre again: to contain Russia."

Few observers characterize the Western reaction to the Georgia crisis, which caught Europe in its August vacation slumber, as united or vigorous. The disarray in European capitals and Washington no doubt reaffirmed Russia's "dim view of our ability to act coherently," Heisbourg said.

"The immediate response was pathetic," he said. "There was no NATO meeting, no EU meeting. . . . The Russians assume there are divisions, and they are right."

Divisions are inevitable because of the anti-Russian bent of new member states in Central and Eastern Europe and varying degrees of enthusiasm elsewhere for Washington's tough stance, analysts say.

"There's no unity at all within Europe. The newer EU countries are far more anti-Russian than the older ones," said Margot Light, a Russian foreign policy expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In addition, the realities of economics and energy constrict the abilities of many European leaders when it comes to taking on Moscow.

"Europe will remain overwhelmingly dependent on Russian gas," said Oksana Antonenko, a Eurasia expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Of course, many countries like Germany and Italy that buy their oil and gas from Russia, they have to worry that if the relationship deteriorates, it will have an impact on their economy."

But Heisbourg believes that Russia's power to use energy resources as a weapon is being exaggerated.

Not only must Russia worry about the vagaries of oil prices, it also runs up against the fact that the Eastern European countries most dependent on Russian fuel are the most defiant, he said. In addition, Russia has less energy leverage on key powers such as Britain and France, whose electricity comes mostly from domestic nuclear plants, he said.

The West also has economic clout of its own, with Russia's government and its wealthy businessmen plugged into the international financial system.

And the West has shown signs of closing ranks after its initial stumbles, Heisbourg said. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which is the biggest European economy and a major recipient of Russian fuels, sounded hawkish recently when she said she favored Georgia's eventual admission into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"That's not what the Russians were bargaining for," Heisbourg said. "The way it unfolds in Germany will be tremendously important because Germany is an in-between country."

Russia shouldn't underestimate Washington's ability to lead a resurgence of Western unity once a new president replaces the Bush administration, which is hamstrung by its lame-duck status and accumulated international resentment, Heisbourg said.

Moreover, Europe's history could enable it to complement a tough American stance by playing the role of mediator as it has in the past, analysts said.

"If you look back to Cold War history," said Light, the Russia expert, "during the Cold War Europe always had a more moderate position than the United States had, a more pragmatic position -- just for reasons of geographic proximity and because Europe tends to have a more pragmatic policy than the U.S."

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rotella@latimes.com

Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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