Leading article: Sarkozy's small steps in Moscow

Monday 08 September 2008 00:00

Nicolas Sarkozy faces a hard task when he travels to Moscow today in an attempt to bridge East-West differences over the Georgia crisis that have, if anything, widened in recent weeks. A month after the Georgian government launched its ill-fated assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia, the French President, who holds the EU presidency, has to persuade Russia to abide by the six-point peace plan he brokered. This would involve Russia withdrawing forces from Georgia proper, agreeing to the free movement of monitors in a buffer zone between South Ossetia and Georgia and initiating a framework for security talks between Tblisi and Moscow.

This was never going to be easy, given the mood of bullish triumphalism in the Kremlin. Feelings in Russia have hardened, however, in the aftermath of the trip to Georgia and Ukraine made by the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, not to mention the visits to Tblisi by David Miliband and David Cameron, all of which became occasions for much windy rhetoric on the theme of Russia's forthcoming "punishment". This empty and aggressive talk has not helped Georgia one whit, encouraging the Russians to dig in. In the meantime, Russia has retaliated, principally by recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

M. Sarkozy must draw on all his diplomatic skills in the Kremlin, distancing himself from the inflammatory language of his British allies, and making clear that Europe will not unthinkingly follow America's lead in the Caucasus. At the same time, he must coolly remind the Kremlin that Europe neither recognises Georgia's breakaway regions as states nor accepts as valid the absurd comparison Russia drew between South Ossetia, population 70,000, and Kosovo, population two million-plus.

The best case scenario is one in which all sides accept only limited gains can be made at this stage. Europe needs to accept it cannot coerce Russia into withdrawing from South Ossetia, but may be able to persuade it to withdraw from Georgia proper. The Russians, meanwhile, need to reconsider their tit-for-tat tactics and note that the longer Georgia is kept "on the boil", the more international opinion will harden against them.

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