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Page last updated at 00:24 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 01:24 UK

Clouds still hang over Georgia

Destroyed building in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

A year ago, on 7 August, the small war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia blew up and blew over like a summer storm.

Since then nothing fundamental has been resolved. Tensions remain between the antagonists. The disputed territory of South Ossetia remains a breakaway from Georgia under Russian protection and almost nobody else's recognition.

As long as people like [Georgian President] Saakashvili - the neo-Nazis and neo-Fuehrers - lead neighbouring states, we will not be at peace
Arcady Yedelev
Russian deputy interior minister

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (of whom Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly said at the time that he would like to hang him up "by the balls") is still in office.

The best that can be said, perhaps, is that it was a model of how things can go wrong with Russia, and a lesson in how they might be avoided in the future. There is potentially another crisis between Russia and Ukraine over gas supplies or the Crimea.

American balancing act

The United States, with a new president since the conflict, is trying to forge a diplomatic policy that on the one hand sends a message to Moscow that it will not have a free hand in dominating its neighbours, and on the other sends a message to those neighbours that Washington supports them but that it is pointless them having a military confrontation with Russia.

Joe Biden speaks after receiving an award from Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili during a reception in Tbilisi, Georgia, 22 July 2009
Mr Biden made the right noises about "fully" backing Georgia's Nato hopes

This delicate balancing act was evident during the recent visit of US Vice President Joe Biden to Georgia and Ukraine.

Mr Biden's visits followed one to Moscow by President Obama himself, at which the famous "reset button" was pressed.

In forging a new relationship with Moscow, Washington does not want to give the impression that it will turn a blind eye to whatever Russia chooses to do in its claimed "sphere of influence".

But equally, it does not want Georgia to expect too much.

Tough love

Joe Biden made all the right noises about "fully" backing Georgia's ambition to join Nato but he also warned President Saakashvili not even to think about re-conquering his lost provinces. A Biden aide called it a policy of "tough love".

US and Georgian troops take part in a Nato exercise in Georgia (25 May 2009)
The simple fact is that there's no conceivable defence assistance programme the United States could do with Georgia that would give the Georgians the ability to defend themselves against Russia
Stephen Pifer, Brookings Institution

"It is a sad certainty, but it is true there is no military option to reintegration, only [a] peaceful and prosperous Georgia... by showing those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia a Georgia where they can be free and their communities can flourish," the vice president said.

The chances of that happening are about as likely as it was for the Irish Republic to rejoin the United Kingdom, but it was the best the Americans could come up with to sugar the pill.

Stephen Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and now with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said of Mr Biden's visits in a comment to the Council on Foreign Relations: "Part of the trip by the vice president was to assure both Ukraine and Georgia that the United States is not going to undercut relations with those two countries as it tries to develop relations with Russia."

But he added that there were limits to US support: "The simple fact is that there's no conceivable defence assistance programme the United States could do with Georgia that would give the Georgians the ability to defend themselves against Russia, to say nothing of trying to take back South Ossetia or Abkhazia."

Nato membership

Georgia's chances of joining Nato in the foreseeable future are also about nil. Public pronouncements repeating Nato's commitment in principle will continue to be made, but many Nato governments privately blame President Saakashvili for adventurism last August.

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity (centre) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Tskhinvali
Moscow recognises South Ossetia and Abkhazia's independence declarations

At the very least, it is felt, he rushed his troops into South Ossetia and fell into a Russian trap that closed very firmly on him.

So most Nato leaders hope simply to keep the lid on this. The United States has provided economic help for Georgia - and Nato has held a small-scale command exercise there - but there is no talk of re-arming Georgia on a large scale.

Meanwhile, Russian military exercises have continued nearby, (Russia also has its eye on other troubled places in the region) and underlying feelings remain the same.

Georgia probably exaggerated Russian intentions last August. There were claims that this was Prague 1968 all over again. But Russia could have toppled President Saakashvili, yet it did not. It did not enter the Georgian capital. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that it would like to see the back of this Georgian leader.

The Russian Deputy Interior Minister, Arcady Yedelev, said recently: "As long as people like Saakashvili - the neo-Nazis and neo-Fuehrers - lead neighbouring states, we will not be at peace."

So do not expect a rapprochement any time soon.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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