Russia's action in recognising the unilaterally declared independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was hasty, intemperate and ill-advised. It was also utterly predictable. These two regions have tried to separate themselves from Georgia ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and they have twice declared independence, without convincing Russia to give them formal backing. Georgia's ill-fated attempt three weeks ago to change the facts on the ground by military means, gave them another chance. It is a chance that they, and Russia's new President Dmitry Medvedev, had no hesitation in seizing.
Predictable though it was, Russia's move adds a new twist to a crisis between the West and Russia that is becoming more dangerous by the day – and much of the blame for this rests with Russia. The Kremlin's response to Georgia's incursion into South Ossetia escalated into an invasion of Georgia – a sovereign, independent country. It was excessive. The withdrawal that was a vital component of the ceasefire agreement brokered by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is not complete even now. Russian troops remain in the Georgian port of Poti and manning checkpoints on the approaches to the enclaves. Their presence is illegal and compromises Georgia's sovereignty. It must be ended forthwith.
That said, the peace initiative launched by France in the name of the European Union was probably the last time any good sense prevailed in this dispute. Since then, the US has sent a warship laden with humanitarian aid – thinly disguised gunboat diplomacy that was bound to irritate Russia. The procession of Western leaders to Tbilisi has exacerbated tensions, and the imminent arrival of the hawkish US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, is calculated to inflame a tense situation still further.
Similarly the Foreign Secretary's speech in Kiev yesterday, which imputed all blame to Russia, reproached the Kremlin for spurning the West's overtures for a decade and threatened Moscow with consequences for misbehaviour, including a drastic reduction in our need for Russian energy. Whatever the reason for his démarche – and David Miliband's personal ambitions in domestic politics, plus the fact he was "beaten" to Tbilisi by David Cameron, can surely not be excluded – this was rhetorical bluster of which we have heard all too much from all too many in recent weeks.
Paradoxically, once Mr Miliband's Kiev speech is shorn of the sabre-rattling and cold war clichés, the bare bones of a strategy can be discerned. He excludes disengagement with Russia and calls, rightly, for co-operation more tightly focused on Europe's interests. He stops short of giving any guarantees on Nato membership, stressing the need for a united international effort to resolve the so-called "frozen" conflicts.
Even this relatively modest programme will not be easy. To Moscow, the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia represents a delayed Russian "payback" for the West's recognition of Kosovo. Mr Miliband tied himself in knots yesterday trying to argue that Kosovo set no precedent, but it certainly complicates Western efforts to challenge Russia's recognition of the Georgian enclaves. If more dots had been connected earlier, by the West as by Russia, the present predicament might have been avoided.
Now is a time for cool heads to find a way out of the impasse. The future of two small regions in the southern Caucasus cannot be allowed to precipitate a new era of conflict between East and West.Reuse content