Leading article: Unwise war games

For Nato to be staging manoeuvres, albeit modest ones, in Georgia sends several messages at once. It tells the Georgian leadership that its desire to join the North Atlantic alliance has not been forgotten, even if its application for the time being has been put on ice.

It warns Russia against even thinking of extending its military power even further into Georgia than it already has, and it says that the southern Caucasus – a potentially important new energy supply route – remains an area of Western interest. Those are not unreasonable messages to want to send.

Whether such exercises are the best use of Nato resources, or even wise, however, is another matter. The alliance's official position, backed by the new US administration, is that the manoeuvres were planned before the short and nasty war between Georgia and Russia last summer and that to have called them off would have sent a particular signal. By which is presumably meant a set of messages that would be the very opposite from the ones it is communicating by leaving the timetable in place.

But the risks of introducing a new military element, however briefly, into so volatile a region became glaringly apparent yesterday when the Tbilisi government announced that it had thwarted an attempted coup and put down a mutiny by a tank battalion outside the capital. Not that there is any clarity so far about what actually happened, at the Mukhrovani base, and why.

Georgian officials linked the reported coup attempt to Russia, and said it was intended to topple President Mikael Saakashvili. That this is the most obvious explanation, though, does not necessarily make it correct. Another version suggested that disaffected elements of the Georgian military – demoralised since the summer defeat – wanted to disrupt the Nato exercises. A third version suspected the Georgian president himself of trying to create an external enemy to deflect the mounting opposition he faces at home.

That all these explanations have elements of plausibility only illustrates how unpredictable a neighbourhood Georgia and its borderlands remain. Both Nato and Russia would be well advised not to fish further in such troubled waters.