Leading article: Do not feed the bear's paranoia

Western leaders should adapt their rhetoric to show a more thoughtful realism and understanding of Russian fears

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One thing is clear in the New Cold War that has sent shivers down spines all over the world. It is that the United States, Britain and the rest of the West will not go to war with Russia to defend Georgia. The question asked by Geoffrey Wheatcroft today, is a pertinent one, therefore. What was the point of inviting the Georgians to join Nato? Nato is, after all, explicitly an alliance of mutual self-defence that commits each member to respond to an armed attack on any other member as if it were an attack on itself.

One argument has been made by American hawks. It is that, if Georgia had been a member of Nato, Russia would not have dared to drive its tanks to within 20 miles of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. This is simplistic in the extreme. It overlooks the tensions that were inherent in the rebirth of Georgia as an independent state in 1990-92. As Shaun Walker reports, the break-up of the USSR left a number of riddles unresolved about the level at which the principle of self-determination applies. In Georgia, ethnic minorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were as unhappy about Georgian domination as Georgians had been about Russian rule. Since 1993, Russian troops have been stationed in both areas as "peace-keepers" – in effect as guarantors of autonomous status within Georgia. Of course, Russian policy has been aggressive and destabilising, as Vladimir Putin fomented separatism in Georgia's tiny autonomous republics. But how could Nato membership have been compatible with such a situation?

The honest answer is that it could not have been, and that was why it was pursued with such enthusiasm by Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian President. He wanted to join Nato precisely because it would have meant a confrontation with the Russians – how could Russian troops be stationed on the soil of a Nato country? Mr Saakashvili has shown himself as a leader of poor judgement. In all the playground back-and-forth about who started it, it was Mr Saakashvili's decision to launch a military attack on the capital of South Ossetia eight days ago that stands out as the most disastrous mistake.

There may be those who interpret this to mean that The Independent on Sunday advocates a policy of appeasement towards Russian aggression. We reject the charge. We agree with George Bush when he condemns Russian bullying. But so much of the West's response to this crisis has been waffle and, where it has not been meaningless guff, it has actually made matters worse.

Although Gordon Brown has been conspicuous by his low profile, at least he has avoided making a dash to Tblisi, as David Cameron has done, to show disingenuous solidarity with the Georgian people and to repeat – apparently on behalf of the British Government – the promise of Nato membership. Instead of looking statesmanlike, which may have been the intention, he looks concerned but unworldly and immature.

One does not need to be a Kremlin apologist to point out what Nato expansion looks like from Russia. Russia's pride and paranoia may seem irrational, but it is real and needs to be managed. That does not mean "appeased", but neither should it mean "provoked". When President Bush said on Friday that "the days of satellite states and spheres of influence are behind us", it does not take much imagination to see how that might be interpreted in Russia. No doubt Mr Bush meant it in a benign, "why can't we all get along together" way, but to a Russian it could easily be an expression of ideological imperialism (of the type that sought to bring democracy to Iraq) and American triumphalism. "The Cold War is over" means "We won", and the end of spheres of influence means "Get used to it".

From Moscow, too, a missile defence deal between the US and Poland, hurriedly signed on Thursday, looks unfriendly. Of course, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia's deputy chief of general staff, could have chosen his words more carefully when he said that the US move "cannot go unpunished". But then that goes for both sides. You do not need to be a Russian nationalist to find the official rationale for the US-Poland deal – that it offers protection against Iran – unconvincing.

The West, by which we mean primarily the 26 Nato members, needs to get this straight before a more serious crisis arises, most likely in Ukraine. If the Georgian crisis acts as an inoculation against such a future threat; if it marks the end of Nato expansion; and if Western leaders adapt their rhetoric to a more thoughtful realism – then it is possible that something positive might come out of the summer of 2008. But only if Western leaders show a clear-eyed understanding of Russia's fears and change the tone and substance of their response.

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