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Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 10:23 UK

Early lessons from S Ossetia conflict

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Although the fighting over South Ossetia is not over, and fighting for another Georgian enclave, Abkhazia, looks like developing, it is perhaps not too early to learn some tentative lessons from the crisis.

1. Do not punch a bear on the nose unless it is tied down.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili
Did President Saakashvili miscalculate?

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili must have thought that Russia would not react strongly when he sent his forces in on the eve of the Olympic games to regain control of a territory he had insisted must remain part of Georgia, albeit with some form of autonomy.

Yet Russia was always likely to respond. It already had forces there, leading the peacekeeping force agreed back in the easier days of 1992 between President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and President Edward Shevardnadze of Georgia, himself the former Soviet foreign minister who helped bring the Cold War to an end.

Russia has been supporting the separatists in South Ossetia and handed out Russian passports to the population, thereby enabling it to claim that it was defending its own citizens.

The result of what many see as his miscalculation is that President Saakashvili might well lose any hope of reasserting Georgian power in the enclave.

2. Russia is in a determined mood, to say the least.

Russia, as it has so often done in the past, sees itself being encircled.

In a revealing interview with former BBC Moscow correspondent Tim Whewell earlier this year, an adviser to the then President Vladimir Putin, Gleb Pavlosky, said that the Russian leadership had concluded after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine that "this is what we faced in Moscow, that they would try to export this to us, that we should prepare for this situation and very quickly strengthen our political system..."

What applied after Ukraine moved towards the West also applied as Georgia did the same. Moscow wanted to prevent any such internal revolution in Russia itself and therefore saw Ukraine and Georgia as hostile influences.

It is not clear how far Russia wants to push this, but given that it says it wants to re-establish order in South Ossetia, that probably means a permanent presence, with no return to a Georgian government role. Diplomats think it unlikely that Russia will invade Georgia 'proper'.

3. Remember Kosovo.

Russia was mightily displeased when the West supported the separation of Kosovo from Serbia and warned of consequences. This might be one of them. Of course, Russia has not argued in this crisis that it is simply doing what the West did in Kosovo - that would undermine its own argument that states should not be broken up without agreement. But everyone knows that underneath, Kosovo is not far from its mind.

4. Georgia is unlikely to join Nato anytime soon.

Georgia and Ukraine were denied membership of Nato in April, although they were allowed to develop an action plan that could lead to membership one day.

The Americans argued for both countries to be accepted, but the Germans and others countered that the region was too unstable for these countries to join at the moment and that in particular Georgia, a state with a border dispute, should not be given formal Nato support.

5. Vladmir Putin is still in charge.

It was Mr Putin, prime minister not president these days, who went to Beijing for the Olympic opening ceremony and who then rushed to the crisis region to take control of the Russian response. His language was uncompromising - Russia was right to intervene, he stated.

6. Do not allow a cuckoo to police the nest.

Mr Shevardnadze's decision in 1992 to allow Russia into South Ossetia as part of the peacekeeping force enabled a later and very different Russian government from the one led by Boris Yeltsin to gradually extend its influence and control. It was not hard for Russia to justify its intervention. It simply stated that its citizens were not only at risk but under attack.

7. The West still does not know how to deal with Russia.

Some of the old Cold War arguments are resurfacing, with no consensus about what to do. There are the neo-conservatives, led by US Vice-President Dick Cheney (and supported by Republican presidential candidate John McCain) who see Georgia (and Ukraine) as flag bearers for freedom which must be supported. In due course, they argue, Russia will be forced to change, just as the old Soviet Union was.

Against that is the argument, expressed to the BBC for example on Sunday by the former British Foreign Secretary Lord Owen, that it is "absurd" to treat Russia like the Soviet Union and that Georgia made a miscalculation in South Ossetia for which it is now paying.

8. Are borders in Europe to be sacrosanct for ever?

It has been one of the rules of post-war Europe - borders cannot be changed except by agreement, as say in Czechoslovakia. Perhaps this rule has been applied too inflexibly. Yet governments like that of Georgia are reluctant to give up any territory, even when the local population is so clearly hostile and might be in that state simply as a result of some past arbitrary decision. It was the Soviet Union that created a semi-autonomous region of South Ossetia in Georgia in 1922. Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Will this lead to trouble one day?

9. August is good month in which to reflect on alliances.

In August 1914, the First World War broke out following the assassination in June of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. It did so because alliances had been formed in Europe which came into play inexorably. Russia supported Serbia, Germany supported Austria, France supported Russia and Britain came in when Belgium was invaded.

Alliances must not be entered into lightly or unadvisedly. If Georgia had been in Nato, what would have happened?

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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