Britain has been one of Europe's most outspoken critics of Russia over its actions in Georgia. In its latest pronouncement, Foreign Secretary David Miliband on August 26 rejected Russia's recognition of Georgia's two rebel regions and called for the "widest possible" international coalition to counter what he called "Russian aggression."
For more on the British position and the European Union's upcoming meeting on the crisis, RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Moore speaks with Denis Corboy, a former EU ambassador to Georgia who now heads the Caucasus Policy Institute at King's College, London.
RFE/RL: What do you make of Russia's move to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Denis Corboy: We've moved from the military phase from the exercise in Georgia to the diplomatic phase. Now we see Russia gaining its negotiating positions on a number of fronts, not just the recognition of these two territories, but also on their interpretation of the size of the so-called security zone, which they seem to interpret as also including the port of Poti.
We also see the remarks by [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov [on August 26] that isolating Russia will hurt NATO more than it'll hurt Russia. This could be a reference to the supply routes to Afghanistan and to the NATO troops there. They're certainly upping the ante and it's terribly hard to know what could be done. The argument in the last two weeks has been between isolating Russia and engaging Russia. I think most observers would say it's better to keep engaging with Russia than to isolate Russia. We saw what happened to China after Tiananmen Square and it's hard to see how isolation can do an awful lot to find solutions.
The emergency European Council meeting called for Brussels next week is going to be very difficult and maybe Europe won't be able to act in a unified fashion and maybe some "coalition of the willing" might have to be put together to take a firmer stand. It's very hard to know how it's going to work out because we're at a very uncertain, perhaps a very dangerous stage that's spread way beyond the boundaries of Georgia at this stage.
RFE/RL: How would you characterize Britain's response to the Georgian conflict and, now, Russia's moves to recognize its two breakaway regions?
Corboy: Britain, whose relations with Moscow haven't been in a satisfactory way in recent years, has tended to take a similar position to what we call the new EU, the new EU states, the Baltic and Eastern Europe countries. This is perhaps understandable in many ways and this is probably reflected in [Miliband's August 26] announcement about this coalition to take a firmer stand.
It may be very frustrating for Britain as well not to be able to use the normal instruments where you have a international dispute, like the UN and the OSCE. In all these bodies Russia has either a veto or can prevent them acting.
[Saying] the recognition by Russia of these two states' independence is unacceptable -- that is what has to be said diplomatically. But what action can be taken is very difficult to see, because the European Council meeting next week -- they will be somewhat limited in their ability to reach agreement on a tougher stance towards Russia and of course there are arguments on both sides of this.
There are very big issues the West needs Russia on -- the question of the nuclear discipline in regard to Iran, you have the Mideast crisis, now again problems are arising with the North Korean decision to go back on its earlier announcement on its nuclear program. There are a great number of things where these issues would make us all stop and listen to what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this afternoon [August 26] and perhaps try to get around a table rather than engaging in isolation tactics. In the longer run these things have to get settled round a table eventually, anyway.
RFE/RL: Do you think Miliband's statement reflects a kind of frustration by London, that the EU is perhaps not the place to try to confront Russia, that it has to look outside the EU, to other countries of 'new Europe' that are not in the bloc?
Corboy: I think a lot of the countries in the EU at the moment, particularly in Eastern Europe, would be taking a very similar line to the British foreign secretary. It's just that it will be difficult to reach an agreed tough stance. So, I suppose this is a warning in a way that if the European Council doesn't reach a unanimous agreement next week that there are other options open, that it's not the end of the road.
This announcement will probably greatly please those countries in Eastern Europe who were feeling very frustrated at the inability of the EU to take a very firm stance. I have to say immediately that there were solid reasons why the EU didn't take a firm stance and we're back to the isolation/engagement discussion and I would always favor engagement, though not at any price.
RFE/RL: What leverage does the EU have? Does it amount to putting on hold the talks with Russia on a strategic partnership?
Corboy: The partnership talks look very much as if they would be suspended. I cannot see in the present climate that European member states would agree to proceed with them. The question of WTO membership is certainly in doubt, membership of the G8 is in doubt, but all these things are pointing towards isolation of Russia and I don't know it will bother the powers that be in Moscow because they have achieved their immediate military objective.
If their objective was to have control over oil and gas coming independently through Georgia and Azerbaijan, that route, they certainly put a shot across that bow. And the holding of Poti port is of great strategic significance in regard to that whole part of the world, Central Asia and the South Caucasus. The military objectives, we're not quite certain what they are and how far they extend, but if we look at the military operation that has taken place, one would have to say that Russia is holding a very strong position now, as they proceed to what has to be a diplomatic phase.