Nearly a month after the outbreak of armed hostilities between tiny Georgia and its giant neighbour, Russia, there has been no easing of the atmosphere of crisis. Could we be witnessing the dawn of a new Cold War?
Yesterday, Georgian diplomats left Moscow, after President Mikheil Saakashvili severed diplomatic relations in protest at the continuing presence of Russian troops on Georgian soil. Tomorrow, European leaders gather in Brussels for an emergency EU summit. And on Tuesday, the hardliner of all hardliners, US Vice-President Dick Cheney, arrives in Tbilisi on a tour at which we can expect to see more rhetoric of the kind not heard since Doctor Strangelove was showing at the cinema.
One of the most striking divisions exposed by the crisis in the Caucasus has been on the Western side, between the older generation and those too young to remember the days when two nuclear-armed blocs kept each other in check with the doctrine of MAD, or mutually assured destruction. But the curious thing is that, apart from one or two old recalcitrants such as Mr Cheney and the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, it is the older generation urging caution. Those speaking the language of confrontation against the Kremlin tend to be closer in age to Georgia's warm-blooded President, who is 40.
Take Britain's 43-year-old Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Last week, he was still urging that Georgia be ushered into Nato, over the objections of many of his seniors that if we had allowed the country into the alliance last spring, we would now be at war with Russia. To which the young bloods retort that if Georgia had been part of the alliance, the Russians would not have dared to invade. The response of the old hands, such as Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Tory foreign secretary, is: "Get real." There is no way Britain or other founder members of Nato, such as France or Germany, would go to war over South Ossetia, they say, which is why – say some – Georgia's application should be turned down.
Behind the dispute over Nato membership for Georgia lies another: should we recognise that Russia has a legitimate interest in what happens around its borders? Max Hastings put the view of the older "realists" in the Daily Mail: "Many Western strategists believe the US is foolish to have pushed Moscow so hard, so close to its frontiers. Why is it acceptable, they ask, for the West to commit troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, but unacceptable for the Russians to act tough on their own doorstep?" He went on: "It is madness to offer security guarantees [that Nato membership implies] to any nation unless one is prepared to fight for it."
To younger "romantics" such as David Cameron, 41, who wants to "accelerate" Georgia's application to join Nato, that smacks of Cold War thinking. The Tory leader was swiftly invited to Georgia after he described Russia as a "massive bully", and wrote on his return: "We must not return to the days of Yalta, when whole nations were allocated according to spheres of influence. If we go along with that in the case of Georgia, where will it apply next? Ukraine? Estonia?" According to some critics of the Cold War veterans, their vision comes from even further back – from the 19th century, when the Council of Vienna divided up Europe among the Great Powers.
There must be none of that when the European Council meets in Brussels tomorrow, believes another relative youngster, David Clark, chair of the Russia Foundation. "By reverting to a foreign policy based on military force, power politics and the imposition of a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Russia poses a significant threat to the values that underpin the modern European state system," he said. This was echoed by Oliver Kamm, chief leader writer of The Times, who said in his blog: "Russian policy is a brutal amalgam of realpolitik, consistent ethnocentrism, and an uncomplicated desire to undermine Western diplomacy. The Caucasus has been the victim, under leaders who've been responsible as well as others who've been disreputable."
According to Mr Clark, a former special adviser to the late Robin Cook,the EU needs "firm action ... to make Moscow think again. Anything less would send a dangerous signal of weakness." Like the rest of this camp, he believes Georgia, Ukraine and "all European democracies that wish to join and are willing to meet the conditions of membership" should be welcomed into Nato.
To sceptics such as Simon Jenkins, that is simply giving hostages to fortune. "Turning its border into a zone of bluff and counter-bluff, so Nato can boast 10 extra flags outside its headquarters," he wrote in The Guardian, "has proved destabilising and provocative .... With Russia, Nato is playing with fire." He is not alone in feeling Western Europe's mature democracies are being dragged into a messy, unwinnable wrestling match with the Russian bear.
Much to the disappointment of the new Cold Warriors, all talk of sanctions against Russia at tomorrow's EU summit has now ceased. In what some saw as a rebuke to Mr Miliband, Downing Street said yesterday: "We have support for Georgia's membership in principle. There is a process in place to enable that to happen, should Georgia meet the conditions of Nato membership." The statement did not convey an urgent desire to welcome Mr Saakashvili into the alliance.
Possibly optimistically, observers have also detected a new, slightly more temperate approach from Moscow. On Friday, Vladimir Putin called for the EU to be "objective", and denied previous defiant claims that Russia did not care if sanctions were imposed. This may reflect alarm following a summit between China and four Central Asian nations, at which Moscow's plea for support was ignored.
Old-fashioned diplomacy, it turns out, could have a role to play after all. It might come as a disappointment to the new kids on the bloc, but the thoughts of that great Cold Warrior, George Kennan, could soon be back in vogue. He called for "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment" of the Kremlin, rather than confrontation – unlike the approach of the current administration in Washington. But that could all change in November.
The new hawks
"We don't accept that the choice for Ukraine, for Georgia, for other countries is that either you are an enemy of Russia or you are a vassal of Russia. You're not. You can be a partner of the West and a partner of Russia. We do not accept the division of Europe into spheres of influence. [We want] to forge the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia. We fully support Georgia's independence and territorial integrity, which cannot be changed by decree from Moscow."
David Miliband, Foreign Secretary, supporting Georgia's ambition to join Nato
"Russia has used massive and disproportionate force against an independent and sovereign democracy. It is completely unacceptable. We should not just let this lie ... The only language that bullies understand is when someone stands up to them."
David Cameron, Conservative leader
"Russian aggression must not go unanswered ... That young democracy [Georgia] has been subjected to an unjustified assault. We support their democracy, and we will work with our allies to ensure Georgia's territorial integrity as a free nation."
Dick Cheney, US Vice President
"Nato's decision to withhold a membership action plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia. I urge the Nato allies to revisit the decision."
John McCain, Republican presidential candidate
"No one can contemplate armed conflict with Russia. But what can or should be done? We need a modern-day equivalent of a Berlin airlift and an economic investment programme like the Marshall Plan to speed up Georgia and Ukraine getting closer to Europe."
Denis MacShane, Labour MP
The old doves
"I think that people in both the United States and in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Western Europe will have to ask very clearly how important Georgia is to them. There has been a lot of talk about how Georgia should join Nato and how, if only Georgia were a member of Nato, this wouldn't have happened, and so forth. I think that is frankly totally unconvincing. The United States, Britain, France and Germany are not going to go to war with Russia over South Ossetia, however sympathetic we are to the people of Georgia ... So Nato membership is not the answer."
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative foreign secretary
"The countries bordering Russia are strategically vital to its security. The right course for the West – without compromising its own position – is to show a greater understanding of why Russia behaves as it does, to accept more willingly Russia's concerns for its Near Abroad."
General Sir Mike Jackson, former army chief
"Cameron urges Nato to admit Georgia. Nato is a mutual defence pact. Do we really mean to commit ourselves to an all-out war against the Russian Federation if something like this happens again? I don't favour that approach, and I don't know anyone who does."
Nick Brown, Labour's deputy chief whip
"It takes two to start a cold war. Britain and the US have pointlessly provoked Russia. If politicians, including our own, want a new cold war, they will get one. But the fault will lie as much with us as with Russia."
Robert Skidelsky, historian
"We were all saved by Angela Merkel and to some extent Nicolas Sarkozy in the spring, refusing to accept that Georgia should become a member of Nato immediately ... The Americans ... were pushing Georgia far too hard against Russian feelings."
Lord Owen, former Labour foreign secretaryReuse content