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Leading article: Careless talk can cost lives

Any hopes that there might be a quick, relatively clean, resolution to the crisis in the Caucasus were dashed yesterday. Indeed, the stakes seemed to be growing higher last night with the confirmation that Russian forces had advanced into Georgia proper.

Hard as it was to see through the clouds of propaganda emanating from the two sides, Russia clearly has the upper hand militarily. So the future would now seem to hinge on what Vladimir Putin's intentions are (for it is now apparent that it is the Russian Prime Minister, rather than the new President, Dmitry Medvedev, who is calling the shots). Is this an exercise in "shock and awe" to teach the Georgians a lesson? Or, as looks increasingly feasible, an attempt to depose Mikheil Saakashvili, the politically inept Georgian leader who has handled this crisis so badly.

Whatever the truth, the diplomatic response from the outside world to this crisis, in particular from the United States, has been woeful. Leaving aside the wisdom of encouraging President Saakashvili's ambitions to join Nato, the manner in which the West has reacted to the sudden flare -up of hostilities has been largely counter-productive. The decision to airlift Georgian troops back from Iraq to join the conflict was a clear signal from the United States that it is backing Georgia in this fight. And the condemnation of Russian "aggression" from the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, yesterday rammed the point home. What hope is there that the White House can help to be an honest broker of a ceasefire now?

There is an absence of realism here. The US, let alone Europe, is never going to go to war with Russia in defence of Georgian sovereignty. Russia holds too many geopolitical cards – from control of energy supplies to its central role in negotiations over Iran – for Western threats to be credible. Talking up the conflict is foolish. What the crisis needs is firm diplomatic pressure on both sides to cease hostilities, not the championing of one party. The best that can be hoped for in the immediate term is a European Union-brokered ceasefire and at least a temporary re-freezing of the South Ossetian issue.