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Leading article: A war on our blind side

It is probably fair to say that until a couple of days ago, few people in Britain knew of the existence of South Ossetia. But in the past three days, while the attention of the world's television audiences has been on the Olympic Games, the diplomatic community has had to scramble together a rapid reaction to the crisis in this tiny country one and a half times the size of Luxembourg.

The Georgian parliament has explicitly declared that the country is in a state of war with Russia. Certainly, Russian planes have attacked Georgian territory with the bombardment of the city of Gori, from which Georgian military forces were being deployed. Many civilians have been killed – a reminder that we should never underestimate the Russian capacity for brutality.

And this conflict has wider dimensions. South Ossetia, though notionally part of Georgia, is a client of Russia. Georgia values its close relationship with the West and sets store by its status as a candidate member of Nato. Few of us will have been aware of the presence of Georgian troops in Iraq – with the withdrawal of all 2,000 of them, we know about it now.

This conflict, then, has the potential to be a proxy war between Russia and the West, except that this is an outcome that every Western leader wants to avoid. Britain would be faced with a very different situation now if Georgia were not a candidate member of Nato but a full partner. We should be obliged to view any attack on Georgia as an attack on Nato and respond accordingly. Membership is not a vague statement of friendship. It carries with it grave responsibilities.

This is not to say that Georgia should not be a candidate for membership. It is, however, a salutary reminder that we should think hard before admitting countries to Nato with so much separatist baggage. As Andrew Wilson writes below, this conflict is the result of a grave miscalculation. It is also a setback to Georgia's Nato ambitions.

Further, it is a reminder that long-standing conflicts have not simply been put on hold for the duration of the "war on terror". While the attention of the US and Britain has been on Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in the Caucasus has been tense for some time. Georgia has faced separatist demands not just from South Ossetia but from Abkhazia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Indeed, South Ossetia's separatists are correct to point out that their country is ethnically and linguistically distinct from Georgia. But however reasonable their case, this is not a time to press it.

Neither is it a good time for Georgia to enforce the integrity of its borders. Yet this is precisely what President Saakashvili has sought to do. It also appears to be the starting position of some senior figures in the West, which may not be constructive when heated accusations of genocide are being bandied about. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, whose area of expertise is the former Soviet Union, should, while defending Georgia's sovereignty, also point out to President Saakashvili that the US cannot underwrite a bellicose approach towards its separatist regions.

For their part, the Russians should not be allowed to get away with supporting breakaway regions within Georgia on the basis that Kosovo was allowed to secede from Serbia. Kosovo enjoyed advanced autonomy, and its borders were established. The attempt by Serbs in northern Kosovo to sub-partition the country does not have the same legitimacy. Similarly, within the countries of the former Soviet Union, not every region with a dissident minority has an automatic right to independence. Self-determination is a sound principle, but each case must be judged on its merits. In practical terms, as Andrew Wilson points out, there is now a case for Russia's supposedly impartial peacekeepers in South Ossetia to be replaced by a genuinely disinterested international force.

Yet this conflict is nothing like the Cold War. The attempts at friendly engagement between the US and Russia during the past decade have paid off, to a greater or lesser degree: A delegation representing the US, the EU, Nato and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is showing goodwill by heading for Tbilisi to discuss a settlement. The fact that Nato is so strongly represented among the group may illustrate precisely the extent to which the West underestimates Moscow's nervousness about perceived Nato expansionism. Whether the group will have any standing as an "honest broker" must be in some doubt.

Russia and the US are permanent members of the Security Council; their inability to agree even a statement suggests that the UN is of very limited utility in any situation that impinges on the interests of its most powerful players. Diplomacy may yet resolve this crisis, but the world needs to find a forum for that diplomacy – and quickly.