Anne Penketh: Nato is walking a tightrope over Georgia

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Nato foreign ministers are walking a tightrope today at an emergency meeting in Brussels called to discuss the Georgia conflict.

They want to send a tough message to the Kremlin, but the big powers know that they cannot afford to isolate Moscow which remains an essential partner for the US and Europe in dealing with other major crises such as the showdown with Iran over its nuclear programme.

The ones most worked up about Russia’s “disproportionate” response to Georgia’s attack on its breakaway territory of South Ossetia are the Baltic states and Poland. Their memories are long enough to remember the 40 year occupation of their countries during the Soviet era. That is why they will insist – and, I expect, get – a renewed promise to both Georgia and Ukraine at today’s session that they will eventually be welcomed into Nato as members. But Nato will still not provide a specific timetable which is what the alliance declined at its summit last April.

The Georgians believe that it is Nato’s failure to bite the bullet in this way that emboldened Russia into provoking the Georgian government this summer. For Russia has been watching with alarm the gradual encroachment of Nato on its borders. If Ukraine and Georgia – both former Soviet republics – are allowed to join, Russia would be surrounded by what it considers to be a hostile military alliance. Its action in Georgia sent a warning that such a move will not be tolerated. But Georgia is pint-sized, compared to Ukraine which also has a sizeable Russian minority.

So the likeliest outcome from today’s Nato is that a tough message will be agreed, but one that will shy away from tough actions that would end up hurting the West. Nato could well suspend ministerial meetings with Russia for example. The Nato-Russia council is seen basically as a talking shop so that would not be

But it also remains to be see how the newly assertive Russia will react. Russia’s envoy to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin has warned that if such a decision is taken in support of the “the Georgian aggressor”, we will not be able to maintain the quality and the schedule of our relationship with NATO."

Russia, he said, could in turn hit back by reconsidering all of its potention cooperation with Nato – including allowing NATO to cross Russian territory to reach Afghanistan.

That is why Nato is walking a tightrope today.