Analysis: How has the Foreign Office reacted?

The Forieng Office adopted a multilateralist approach, including going through the UN
The Forieng Office adopted a multilateralist approach, including going through the UN

The Foreign Office has issued increasingly stern warnings over recent days as the scale of the Russian assault becomes clear.

On the other hand, it has held off from making too many comments about the wisdom of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's decision to order a full-scale assault on South Ossetia in the first place.

It won't surprise many observers of international relations to note that Downing Street is following the same line as Washington on this. The tough language of Jim Murphy, Europe minister, David Miliband, foreign secretary, and Gordon Brown, prime minister, has echoed that coming from George Bush.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, western states are naturally sympathetic to the American-educated Mr Saakashvili, who came to power in a bloodless revolution promising to open up his country to the west. Georgia has troops in Iraq and acts as a useful pro-Western country in a region shadowed by Russia on one side and the Middle East on the other.

Secondly, there confused interpretations of Russia's aims. It says it is trying to protect South Ossetians from Georgian aggression and president Medvedev has now announced an end to military operations. On the other hand; having bombed a civilian airport on Tbilisi and a military airport just outside the capital, the line cutting across Georgian territory is starting to look like an attempt at partial annexation.

The last point - and this is one that has pertained for centuries - is the abiding fear of Russia western powers feel. They have good reason to do so. Russia is flexing its muscles after years of what its people saw as humiliation. Vladimir Putin, whose desire to remain president while acting under the description of prime minister can no longer be in doubt, has struck a consistently belligerent note. He can afford to, given Europe's dependence on Russia for natural gas - the same gas running below the Georgian ground in the form of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline - and the impossible scenario of western powers entering into a fully-fledged military conflict with Russia to protect Georgian territorial integrity.

The Foreign Office's reaction has been notable for its relentlessly multilateral approach. Operating with the UN, the EU, Nato, America and off its own bat, the government has grounded itself in international efforts to avert a crisis, however irrelevant those efforts might seem in the face of Georgian foolishness and Russian intransigence.

Mr Murphy has been given a rare moment in the spotlight as Europe minister - rapidly delivered to television studio after television studio to communicate the government's calls for a ceasefire and reiterate its annoyance at the Russian response. His performance has been above average. He has the eyes of a scared animal caught in the headlights, but the content of his statements are sensible and carefully weighted.

He took an adult approach to David Cameron's call for Georgia's Nato membership bid to be sped up, treating it with the disdain it deserved. That particular call will be treated as immature political posturing without any real appreciation for the complexity of the actual diplomatic reality and is a worrying indicator to analysts that the man who should be preparing for government is still behaving like an opportunistic opposition politician.

But the Foreign Office, and the British people, should not fool themselves that they have any particular voice when it comes to international conflagrations, even on the outskirts of Europe. Britain used up valuable diplomatic capital through its invasion of Iraq, making many observers ignore UK government moralising on overly harsh military responses as hypocrisy. Furthermore, Britain is simply not significant enough to force any action on Russia, whose attitude to the UK hardened following the controversy over Alexander Litvinenko's death by radiation poisoning.

Britain is not alone its virtual redundancy. America may be the most powerful country on earth, but with its military forces concentrated on Afghanistan and Iraq, and Russia in an elevated position of resource control, military power and strong government, the US has had to shout from the sidelines just like everyone else.

Ian Dunt


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