Alistair Horne: We mistake the mood in Russia at our peril

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The Independent Online

Civilisation is right to be appalled by the brutish excess of the Russian attack on Georgia. It was clearly well-planned in advance; a cunning trap laid not just for a rash Saakashvili, but for George W Bush in his expiring presidency. America's share of the blame goes back, however, to the Clinton administration – and his ill-named Secretary of State, Mrs Albright.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Reagan and Thatcher displayed Churchillian magnanimity towards Gorbachev's broken nation. Relations were never better. There was no triumphalism. Then came Madeleine Albright, with all the inbuilt prejudices against Russia of her native Mittel Europa. Moscow's nose was rubbed in the dirt. With a little more understanding of Russia's pan-Slavic pride, the war in Kosovo might have been contained.

Under the present US administration, the humbling of Russia continued by ringing her former territories with ABM radar sites, and advancing NATO to her very frontiers. Just across the Russian border in North Ossetia, in 1990 I was struck by an imposing monument which marks the high tide of Hitler's invasion, on the way to Stalingrad; you don't need to be a Russian of my generation to resent the possibility of German NATO forces installed a few miles away.

Has Dick Cheney forgotten US reactions to Soviet missiles 90 miles across the way from Florida in 1962? Pushing NATO eastwards into Poland might have been just alright; but into Slovakia and Romania, a bridge too far; to Georgia and Ukraine, far too far. Russia's historic fears of "encirclement" were being thrust at her.

History never repeats, but there are the obvious precedents that pessimists can reach for: Sarajevo, 1914; the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, 1938. But equally relevant might be the tragically meaningless guarantees Britain extended to Poland in 1939.

The fiery Georgians needed no encouragement. In Tbilisi in 1990, I recall watching zealous Georgians smash statues of Lenin and Stalin. A few days earlier, though, in Moscow I had been invited to address the Red Army, as one of the first Brits to benefit from Glasnost. The subject they chose: The Cuban Missile Crisis.

Now all the goodwill of the early 1990s seems to have evaporated in a blaze of gunfire. What next? Sabre-rattling by Bush's disastrous Vice-President, Dick Cheney, the man responsible for the worst of the mess in Iraq, is as meaningless as Chamberlain's guarantees to Poland in 1939; in this contest, the West has no sabres to rattle, and it could be catastrophic if McCain were now to cash in on electoral emotion in the US in pursuance of a platform of confrontation.

Mikheil Saakashvili can claim that 80 per cent of Georgians wanted to join NATO; on the other hand a similar percentage of Russians would almost certainly support Putin's quest for a strong Russia. We would mistake this mood at our peril.

It may be deemed a pity that Saakashvili, educated in the US, did not have Henry Kissinger as a tutor. Recently Kissinger, encouraged by Bush, established warm relations with Putin, visiting him on a regular basis. As the only American who can laughingly claim to have been kissed on the mouth by "The Bear", Brezhnev, in the 1970s, Kissinger knows better than anyone the value of détente.

He told me how, on a recent visit to Moscow, he suggested to Putin that, with Russia's main threats for the future residing in unstable frontiers with China and Islam, the US should be a natural partner. The Ruler of All the Russias got up from his desk, crossed the floor to Kissinger, and gave him a hug.

So what now? Any plea for cooperation has to make sense. Recranking up the Cold War would be a disaster for all. Between Russia and the West the challenge now is no longer nuclear, but energy. Neither the US nor Europe has the edge, certainly not the sabre. At the risk of an American climb-down, after a cease-fire what is called for is a serious renegotiation of basic issues, of old fashioned spheres of interest, of not moving the boundaries of NATO any further east. The radar stations (which would probably be ineffectual anyway) should be dumped, in exchange for a deal over the Georgian enclaves.

The threat that should unite both blocs remains militant Islam. How Bin Laden in his Waziri eyrie must be laughing! In Britain there may be less laughter if one recalls that, in 1982, it was invasion of another tiny Georgia – South, in the Antarctic – that prefaced a major war with Argentina over the Falklands.

Alistair Horne's authorised biography of Henry Kissinger in the year 1973 is to be published next April