At first glance, the announcement sounded pretty good. Following a meeting of European Union foreign ministers on Wednesday in Brussels, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced that Europe would send monitors to the Georgian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to keep tabs on the cease-fire between Georgia and Russia.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Brussels on Wednesday.Foto: REUTERS
Europe, Kouchner assured the gathered press, was "determined to act on the ground." The joint statement issued by EU foreign ministers also spoke of Europe's desire to contribute to a "lasting and peaceful settlement of the conflicts in Georgia."
But it didn't take long for observers to pick apart the agreement. There was clear evidence of a rift in the 27-nation bloc. Great Britain, along with many Eastern European countries, wanted the EU to harshly condemn Russian violence in Georgia, but core members like France, Germany and Luxembourg were in no mood to apportion blame.
Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, "I don't think we should lose ourselves in long discussions about responsibility and blame for the escalation of recent days." French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it was "completely normal" that Russia wanted to defend its interests.
The EU rhetoric was very different from tough language used by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday as she prepared to leave for Paris and Tbilisi in a show of support for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. "If indeed Russia is violating a cease-fire, and I have to say the reports are not encouraging about Russia's respect for the cease-fire," she said, " that will only serve to deepen the isolation to which Russia is moving."
Rice also mentioned the 1968 uprising in Prague, which was crushed by Soviet tanks. "Things have changed" since then, she said, adding that Russia could no longer get away with such behavior.
Russia has countered with accusations of Western cynicism. Georgia started the brief war by sending troops into South Ossetia, said leaders in Moscow. But who or what caused the flare-up is still a matter of debate.
Russia has long supported the anti-Georgian leaderships of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second breakaway Georgian province. Its troops, massed near the Georgian border, quickly and predictably sent the Georgian army into retreat, then advanced into Georgia proper, shelling and bombing villages and towns.
German commentators on Thursday want the European Union to condemn Russia's use of force and show a little more spine towards Moscow.
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Poland and the Baltic States are supported in their view of Russia as aggressor by Great Britain and Sweden, which has become increasingly skeptical of Russia recently. This group would like to see international peacekeepers stationed in Georgia's renegade provinces. Paris and Berlin, on the other hand, prefer to speak of 'observers.'"
"The conflict is likely to be more acrimonious within NATO. For Eastern Europeans, the recent war is proof that Georgia should join the alliance as quickly as possible. Europe's west has reached the opposite conclusion."
"It will be simple for Moscow, in its position of strength, to take advantage of this split. The Kremlin wants to expand its influence and destabilize its pro-Western neighbors on the long term. The EU can't have the slightest interest in such a development -- but given its disunity, the EU can't do much about it."
"This war sends a crystal clear signal -- that it is finally time to join the US and limit Russia's sphere of influence. But not everyone wants to hear that signal."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The Europeans act as if they could pacify the situation by sending in EU peacekeepers. Russia, though, hasn't given its approval, and no Europeans want to send soldiers into a conflict region without the agreement of all parties. In other words, it is still a phantom debate that the EU is using to cover up its biggest problem: Europe is deeply divided over how it should react to Russia's demonstration of power."
"Between Steinmeier and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband one can find any number of opinions -- a simple message to read from the perspective of Moscow: We are weak, we have no collective will and even faced with violence like that in South Ossetia we would rather bicker among ourselves. Now that the EU, with Sarkozy in the lead, has taken on the role of mediator, Russia can count on a pleasing scenario: America is far away and consumed by an election campaign. Europe is capitulating in the face of power -- and itself."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"One shouldn't forget that Europe is chronically divided when it comes to foreign policy issues. And in this case, the cleft is even deeper than normal. The divide runs not just between Europe's east and west -- between new members and old. But Germany and Great Britain are likewise far from unified. Miliband demanded right at the beginning of Wednesday's meeting that the EU cease negotiations for a partnership agreement with Moscow -- talks that only recently resumed following an eight-month-long ice age. But Paris and Berlin want to remain at the table with the Russian government."
"The difficult issues of the partnership agreement, and the question as to whether the EU should send peacekeepers to the Caucasus, have been postponed until the next time the foreign ministers meet in September."
Germany's other financial daily Handelsblatt focuses on the US:
"The US underestimated the crisis in the Caucasus. The Russians will happily exploit this fact. For the first time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia has once again flexed its muscles and, from Moscow's perspective, breached the encroaching frontier that now stretches from the Baltic States through Poland and Ukraine all the way to Georgia. Moscow is continuing a strategy established by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin when he was president: He wants to regain Russia's former sphere of influence."
"In geopolitical conflicts, the US will now be faced with a different Russia. It is now a country that has underlined its desire to be a major power. And it is a country which, in the era of US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, can show America the limits of its reach. Russia needed almost two decades to get over the shock of the Soviet Union's collapse. Now, though, backed up by energy resources and a prime minister who wants to realize the dream of a powerful Russia, Moscow can defy Washington."
-- Charles Hawley; 12:30 p.m. CET