Rodric Braithwaite: Georgia is no place for empty promises

America and its Nato allies are trapped in a time warp. We have to stop the Cold War posturing and talk to Russia as equals

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Life has moved on, but the old Cold Warriors do not seem to have noticed. Here we are once again in a nasty punch-up between Russia and the West, a welcome return to the good old days before we got ourselves into such trouble over Iraq and Afghanistan. But the row has an anachronistic feel to it. Russia's current assertiveness is precariously balanced on the high oil price. The United States military, by far the most powerful in history, is inadequate to solve America's problems in the 21st century.

The time when each of the two superpowers could mobilise half the world against the other is over. So is the brief decade when the West believed that history had come to an end, and that its views and values would enjoy a universal triumph. India, China, Latin America, the Muslim world, are on the move and they have other concerns. They do not automatically believe that the West is necessarily right and the Russians necessarily wrong.

The Russians argue that what they have done in Georgia is no different from the West's bombing of Serbia in 1999 and its recognition of Kosovo's independence earlier this year. On that precedent, they say, Georgia's two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are also entitled to independence.

Georgia and its Western backers deny the precedent, on what grounds is unclear. We must not appease the Russian aggressor, they say. President Bush thunders that Georgia's territorial integrity must be restored. Nato ministers meet to say that Georgia and Ukraine must be brought into the Western alliance. They are long on rhetoric but short on viable solutions. They find themselves in a hole, and they seem determined to go on digging.

There is a long, tangled, and disputed back history to all this. Georgia, like the former Yugoslavia, is an ethnic patchwork. The native Abkhazians are largely Muslim. The South Ossetians want to unite with their ethnic relations over the Russian border in North Ossetia. Neither liked being in Georgia, and as the Soviet Union broke up, both made a bid for independence. In an ironic parallel, the Georgians closed down the local university in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi just as the Serbs were closing down the Albanian university in Kosovo, on the grounds, one very distinguished Georgian philosopher said, that the Abkhazians had no proper language, history or culture, and did not need a university anyway.

Georgia's first democratically elected president, the disastrous Zviad Gamsakhurdia, then launched a vicious little war against Abkhazia, smashing its capital Sukhumi. But the Georgians were defeated by a combination of Abkhazians and "volunteers" from Russia and Chechnya. Tens of thousands of Georgian refugees fled to Tblisi. Much the same, though on a smaller scale, was happening in South Ossetia.

Various ceasefires were brokered, with Russian "peacekeepers" acting as guarantors. The ceasefires regularly broke down, thanks to provocations and intrigues by all sides. They were as regularly patched up again.

With the arrival of Mikheil Saakashvili, another democratically elected president, things began to go downhill. The Americans gave him political and economic support and advice, and equipped and trained his army. He turned out to be the Sorcerer's Apprentice, and outran American control. He provoked the Russians and the South Ossetians by one pinprick after another, and, above all, by his application to join Nato.

The Russians regularly warned that there would be consequences. Egged on by the Russians, the South Ossetians increased their provocations. Perhaps it was a deliberate trap. If so, Saakashvili fell right into it. His soldiers had no hope of beating the Russians in a fight. Maybe he assumed that the West would bail him out: an epic miscalculation. Many Georgians now feel that the West betrayed them. In due course they will no doubt turn on Saakashvili himself.

Most Russians believe their government's action in Georgia was entirely justified. They are hugely satisfied that they are now dictating the rules of the game, after endless lectures about their human rights record by the people who brought the world Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, after years of having their interests systematically ignored by a triumphalist West. They are now back again, teaching an irritating neighbour a sharp lesson, dictating their will in the energy market, and cocking a snook at Nato and the European Union. It is not a pretty sight, but it is understandable.

The Americans and their allies have been made to look weak and foolish. They do not have the power to force South Ossetia and Abkhazia back into Georgia, any more than the Russians had the power to force Kosovo back into Serbia. Their offer of Nato membership to Ukraine and Georgia looks perilously like bluff.

Nato has the means to defend the Baltic States and Poland from Russian aggression. But Georgia? But Ukraine? Most Ukrainians would like to be linked with the West. But they want to remain on good terms with Russia: that is why, according to polls, a majority oppose Nato membership. Do we propose to force it on them?

We have given small countries meaningless guarantees before. After their shameful betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Britain and France declared war on Hitler in September 1939 to honour their guarantee to Poland. Everyone else, including America, fought only after he had moved against them. But the guarantee did not save Poland, which ended the war under Soviet domination.

The Cold War had a happier outcome, largely because the peoples of eastern Europe and of the Soviet Union themselves turned against the communist system. Before that, the West had stood idly by while the Soviet Union invaded East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, despite all our rhetoric about rolling back Soviet power and freeing the captive nations. That was not very brave: but the alternative could have brought a conflict of unparalleled destructiveness. Western policy was necessarily prudent and ultimately successful.

So what do we do? To start with, we can make our existing institutions more effective. Despite the difficulties, we can devise a common European energy policy to reduce our dependence on Russian oil and gas. By overhauling Nato's defensive arrangements we can make it quite clear that our guarantee to Nato's existing members is serious. Our support for the other small countries around Russia's periphery will have to be expressed through the non-provocative use of the ordinary implements of diplomacy – trade, aid, practical advice, political backing.

The Russians cannot be allowed a veto over these countries' right to seek membership of Western institutions. But the existing members also have the right to judge for themselves whether poking Russia in the eye by accelerating the enlargement of Nato and the EU serves the real interests of either existing or potential members.

The present row with the Russians will pass, and we will then find ourselves having to talk to them again – as equals. Those who dislike the prospect need to spell out a practical alternative: it does not lie in moral indignation and gesture politics.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite is a former ambassador to Moscow and former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee

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