The conflict between Georgia and Russia would have exploded anyway, in some form, were Nato to have pressed ahead with offering Georgia a start on the road to membership, possibly at its meeting at the end of the year. The eruption on Friday should not deter Nato from taking that step soon.
Of course, many Nato members will consider how, had Georgia already been a member, they would have had to defend it. Germany will win more support for its argument, which dominated the Nato summit in April, that it would be wrong to offer membership for fear of provoking Russia and while its territory remains in dispute. Alarm at this near-war on Europe’s borders will easily persuade more governments of the need for caution.
That would be wrong. It would tell Russia that it had an effective veto over who joined Nato. It would discourage the pro-American and pro-European spirit of President Saakashvili, elected in 2004 partly for those sentiments. It might even make it harder to agree the deployment of international peacemakers in South Ossetia by showing that the US and Europe were indifferent to Georgia’s case.
There appear to have been serious miscalculations, more so on the Georgian side. Given the close contact with the US, that might be extended to the US as well. Saakashvili may have deluded himself that four years of US help in equipping his armed forces enabled them to make a dash for their prize. In taking advantage of the distraction of the Olympics, he looks sneaky, and so jeopardises his claim to the moral high ground.
The Nato summit was a clash of philosophies about Europe’s future. On one side was President Bush, making one of his best speeches, about the value of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into Nato as an assertion of common principles. On the other was Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, laying out why this should be postponed, perhaps for ever, even at the cost of undermining the pro-Western camp in Georgia. (British officials let it be known that they were on the American side in sympathy, but as the US would not win, they were “on the side of compromise”.)