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Georgia: The return of Cold War diplomacy

telegraph.co.uk

Georgia: The return of Cold War diplomacy 

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 10/08/2008

Russia’s ruthless attack on Georgia is a dramatic and depressing reminder of the willingness of the Soviet Union (and, before it, imperial Russia) to pursue its foreign policy across the borders of sovereign nations.

It is true that Georgia – unlike, say Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 – walked into a trap.

What did it imagine would be Moscow’s response to its own assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of the Russian-supported breakaway province of South Ossetia? Did the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, not realise that he was providing his enemy with an excuse not just to invade the rebel province but also to launch air strikes on central Georgia?

Yet the excuse is not a valid one. Russia’s behaviour is indefensible.

Moscow’s concern for the human rights of South Ossetia’s ethnic Russians counts for little compared to its determination to increase its global prestige.

The problem with Georgia, seen in this context, is not that it encompasses a Russian enclave: it is that Georgia controls the oil and gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey that offers Europe a degree of independence from Russian energy blackmail.

No one was surprised to hear claims yesterday that Russian jets tried to bomb that pipeline.

The Kremlin is paranoid about the energy resources on which so much of its power depends: witness its acquiescence in the seizure of control of BP’s Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, which Russian oligarchs pulled off with impunity (although not without undermining Russia’s stock market and its ability to win future foreign investment). Therefore it is paranoid about a fully independent Georgia.

As yesterday’s air and artillery strikes on Gori reminded us, we should not underestimate the sheer jumpiness of Russian nationalists. They cannot forget for a moment that the border with Nato has moved several countries closer in the past few years.

Countries that enjoy membership of the Western alliance – by virtue of meeting its democratic criteria – enjoy a high degree of protection from old-style Russian imperial power games. Georgia does not enjoy that security: this year, Nato turned down Mr Saakashvili’s request for provisional membership, and now (as President Bush warned his fellow leaders) Moscow has taken advantage of that rebuff.

How can the current crisis be resolved?

Mr Bush was obviously right to call for an immediate end to Russian bombings, and to emphasise the territorial integrity of Georgia: it might seem an obvious point to make but, irrespective of its ethnic makeup, South Ossetia is not part of Russia.

Dragging Moscow to the negotiating table will be a tremendous test of American and European diplomacy, and one with very significant implications for the future.

This is in some respects a test case. Should Russia continue down the path it seems to have chosen – of threatening its neighbours’ sovereignty, manipulating energy supplies and misappropriating the assets of foreign companies – then the West must be willing to react with a degree of acerbity, cunning and self-confidence that it has not manifested since the nerve-racking decade that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia may have seized the headlines from China, with whom it shares some features of a nationalist ideology. But, unlike its eastern neighbour, it is not a manufacturing superpower – in fact, the very idea is laughable.

The Russian resurgence is built on natural resources and sustained by a military machine that can reduce Georgian towns to ruins but is dwarfed by those of Nato.

Its fears of encirclement by pro-Western countries are perfectly understandable: a Nato that incorporates democratic and responsible regimes in Ukraine and Georgia would be in a position to contain Moscow’s ancient but tiresome and anachronistic imperial ambitions for the foreseeable future.

The first thing Nato should do is provide a clear and unified call for an immediate ceasefire.

It should also increase its rhetorical support for Russia’s other neighbours – who must be feeling very anxious – and show willingness to threaten diplomatic actions that would weaken Russian prestige, such as reviewing its membership of the G8.

The project to admit Ukraine and Georgia to Nato should be revived rather than abandoned: Mr Saakashvilli may have led his country into an unwinnable war, but the events of recent days prove just how important it is that Georgia re-establishes its credentials as a stable, pro-Western power that can be trusted to look after an oil pipeline.

The situation in South Ossetia is complex, but the lesson we should derive from it is simple.

If an infantile Russia wants to revert to Cold War diplomacy, then fine: the West is up to the challenge.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/08/10/dl1001.xml

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