"Do We Want To Gamble On What Putin Wants?" James O'Brien On U.S. Policy Towards Western Balkans, South Caucasus, Central Asia

"Do We Want To Gamble On What Putin Wants?" James O'Brien On U.S. Policy Towards Western Balkans, South Caucasus, Central Asia

The top Biden administration official in charge of Europe and Eurasia on Thursday signalled Washington's strong support to the EU as it's about to decide whether to formally launch a new economic integration project that'll be available to Western Balkans countries which, as he put it, will also require additional work with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, TURAN's Washington correspondent reports.

Speaking at the German Marshall Foundation, a think tank dedicated to transatlantic cooperation, James O'Brien, assistant Secretary of State, said that "our challenge this year is to prove that reasonable governments can deliver results," adding that otherwise, the opportunity opens up for others to spread "false slogans".

Over the last decades, he said, there have been a number of states that may have had a path toward Europe, but no clear prospect of moving toward it. And there were other states that were sort of half between Russia and the U.S. So this goes from basically the shores of the Caspian and even Central Asia, all the way through to the Adriatic.

"This is a serious problem for our security, but also for the people of those states. This gray space allows politicians to flourish who love being just outside the rules... They can play all the angles, but not by any of the rules. So we need to change their political incentives," O'Brien emphasized.

And in this context, he added, there are "a couple of very good things" that are going to happen. One is that the EU's decision to begin accession talks with nine countries to intensify its engagement with this range of states. From a U.S. standpoint, the assistant secretary said, "we strongly support this. We are linking the instruments we have to be in support of the reforms needed for all these states to find a future as part of the single market and the European Union."

In the Western Balkans, where O'Brien visited early this week, everyone "has some fatigue of being promised a path to the EU and then never quite really getting on it,"he said.  "Brussels has recognized this. And not only do I think there's a different spirit from member states of the EU about how to engage, but they're creating some innovative mechanisms."

White the Western Balkans are now waiting for final approval of the European growth plan for the region, the Central Asian states, as  O'Brien put it, are looking for trade routes that aren't just China or Russia, and they built a lot of their infrastructure to go through Russia, "now they want to build different infrastructure."

He elaborated: "That means it flows down across the Caspian, Azerbaijan, then it goes to Georgia or what we hope will be an arrangement with Armenia and Turkey so that it flows out as well that way, both routes to handle huge volumes of trade. We're looking at the Black Sea then managing even more of the global trade in key critical minerals, grain, all kinds of items."

He added: "We'll do some work again with the EU because this is a foundational partnership, so we'll have work in promoting exactly this. There's a conference next week in Brussels about financing some of these trade opportunities. It's hosted by EBRD, I think EBRD and then we'll participate."

O'Brien also touches on Russia's full-scale invasion, international and European security, saying the world is safer for supporting Ukraine: "Putin thought he was going to divide and weaken NATO, but he ended up with a stronger alliance."

Washington believes Ukraine will be stronger and in a better position to determine its future by the end of 2024, "and that future, as President Biden said, is that we're going to help Ukraine win."

"Russia will want to continue its war until it, frankly, sees the results of our election in November. So we're looking at a long 2024, and we're talking now in the depths of winter. Winter is always dark and hard."

According to him, in the U.S. Congress there is great support for further aid to Ukraine, despite the current blockade in this institution by conservative Republicans, who do not want to allocate more aid to this country.

O'Brien also warned Russia's economy will shrink by about 6 percent over the next two years. He said that Russia has decided to give up the rich world by taking a different direction, and there he mentioned North Korea, with which he has recently signaled an increase in cooperation.

Putin, he said, offers a kind of confusing litany of things that he cares about, saying Russia has no borders, saying it's a geopolitical tragedy that any ethnic Russian lives outside a domain governed from Moscow, that the Western territories in Poland were a gift from Stalin to the Poles.

"So we're basically asking, do we want to gamble on what he wants? And do we want to gamble with the lives of the people who would live under occupation? And we have seen what occupation means in Bucha, in Mariupol, and elsewhere," O'Brien added.

Speaking about NATO, he said, the Alliance looks at this summer's Washington summit as "how it will defend our future, it will be a stronger, more vibrant body than President Putin expected to see."

"And I think that is a clear lesson that will help us as we go forward. And we'll emerge from that summit with a clear place for Ukraine that is already contributing to our security," he concluded.

O'Brien also spoke about Georgia. Washington 'strongly supports' the international observer mission in Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections. "We're going to be working with that mission and frankly with the really vibrant civil society in Georgia to see that the election goes well because what we know is more than 85% of citizens of Georgia continually say what they want is reform and entry into the EU. That's what we have to stand with."

He added: "The Georgian government has really put in an effort at reform measures, particularly over the last months, and we appreciate what they've done. We appreciate what they've done on avoiding sanctions circumvention by restricting a lot of activity. I think there's room to have a lot of optimism that Georgia will be a key contributor in that environment."

As for Russia's role, he went on to add, "we know Russia is investing a lot in its own port, Novorossiysk. It's investing in or it's taken over a number of Ukrainian ports. It's attempting to use them and as you say, it's building our own infrastructure in Abkhazia. So this will be something we have to work our way through over the next years, but we'll get our way through it because that's 10 countries who just want more peace and prosperity from having a secure arrangement in the Black Sea, and that's the thing we'll work on coming up."

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