Page last updated at 20:49 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 21:49 UK

Diplomatic mood darkens in Georgia

By Nik Gowing
BBC News, Tbilisi

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Gori, Georgia, 11/08
France's Bernard Kouchner has been leading diplomatic efforts

European diplomats and foreign ministers have conceded they will struggle to regain the initiative in the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

They talk in the darkest terms of a possible return to tensions the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II.

Several have even compared events to Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland.

In more than 25 years covering international diplomacy, I have rarely seen such gloom and head-shaking over the activities of one nation - Russia.

It is not just me saying that. It is those in government almost check-mated in the past few days - both by Georgia's military push into South Ossetia on Thursday night, then Russia's defiant response on Friday, which continues as I sit writing this in the Georgian foreign ministry.

After spending more than a day with several of them at a private gathering in northern Italy, none can answer with precision whether the warning signs of the decisive Russian response against Georgia were there to be read in the middle of last week.

"The Russian capability was obvious," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt as we descended in his Swedish air force jet out of Turkish airspace for a quick dash to Tbilisi's almost deserted airport.

"But capability never revealed intent - even after the many weeks of Russian manoeuvres in the Caucasus, just north of the Georgian border."

'Immense challenge'

If any of the capital's airport had been bombed by Russian warplanes, there was no obvious sign.

A handful of military helicopters sat untouched on the grass. As we taxied in, we could see French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's jet alongside the old Soviet-style VIP terminal.

It is against what Russia signed up to - to settle disputes by peaceful means
Terry Davis
Council of Europe

By the time we arrived, it had gone - for the French EU presidency's next dash to Moscow to broker a ceasefire agreement with Russia.

European diplomacy is not so co-ordinated that the foreign minister currently representing the EU's 27 members could wait a few more minutes to exchange impressions with the current chair of the European body representing the 47 nations in the Council of Europe.

Mr Bildt, a veteran of the diplomatic realities of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, could only shrug in the fierce Georgian sun, look across to the French jet waiting to take off, then turn away for his own mission.

He already told me on the plane that the diplomatic challenge to restrain Russian intentions was "immense in every respect".

The widespread diplomatic concern in the EU and Nato is that after South Ossetia and probably Abkhazia, next Moscow will have its eyes set on the Crimea region of Ukraine and then Ukraine itself.

No programme

It is the first time in the Council of Europe's 60-year history that two member nations who have pledged to resolve disputes peacefully have instead resorted to war. Turkey's invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974 does not qualify.

Along with the Council of Europe's Secretary-General, Terry Davis, Mr Bildt is here to make an assessment ahead of an emergency EU meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.

"This is unprecedented," said Mr Davis. "There is no international right to go into a country to protect the right of your citizens." South Ossetia is thought to have 70,000 Russian passport holders.

"It is against what Russia signed up to - to settle disputes by peaceful means."

I asked Mr Bildt whether it was too late before his first meeting with Georgia's foreign minister.

"Evidently, since the war is ongoing," he said, with Swedish understatement.

What should have happened?

"Perhaps to have acted more forcefully earlier and dealt with the activities that we saw," he added.

"There has been escalation over some time, over weeks and over months."

Mr Bildt and Mr Davis will have 36 hours here.

There is no programme, no list of appointments - just a determination to be well informed before difficult decisions have to be taken by the EU and Nato to underscore the warning of US Vice President Dick Cheney that Russian aggression "must not go unanswered".

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