The Return of Putin and Humiliation for the West; Protest: Vladimir Putin Is Portrayed as Hitler by a Georgian at a Demonstration in London Last Night. but While Georgia's Leader Mikheil Saakashvili Has Flaunted His Links with President Bush (Left), the US Seems Unlikely to Come to His Aid

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I HAVE to declare a bias in the war raging between Russia and Georgia. I have not fallen for the charms of a black-eyed Georgian beauty, nor am I taking the Kremlin rouble. The truth is, I am an honorary member of the Ossetian nation, the people whose future sparked the conf lict.

Whenever I meet Ossetians, I am treated like royalty and have to endure life-threatening bear-hugs all because of my name. The Ossetians are descended from the Alans, a tribe who were big in the Dark Ages, so any foreigner who bears that name is greeted as an honorary Ossetian.

This unfortunate people's homeland straddles the Caucasus mountains, some living in the north, under Russian rule, and some in the south, under Georgia.

After many bear-hugs, I devoutly wish the South Ossetians to live in peace.

That, unfortunately, is a long way off.

After five days of fighting, the war is expanding, with the Russians taking control of half of Georgia. There are fears they are on the way to take the capital Tbilisi an idea that only last week would have been unthinkable.

Visitors to Tbilisi might be excused for thinking that the Republic of Georgia is the 51st state of the USA. The city is plastered with posters of George W Bush embracing President Mikheil Saakashvili, a US-trained lawyer who has the smooth tongue and ample hair of an American politician.

Saakashvili himself behaves as if his country of 4.4 million had already become the 28th member of the European Union, whose blue and gold banner hangs all over the capital. He has taken to making his most solemn pronouncements standing in front of the EU flag, and the more desperate his situation, the more the flags multiply.

Alas for Georgia, it is not part of the US, the EU or even of Nato. It is not even formally on the path to Nato membership.

All of which makes the flags and posters just a dream.

Just how insubstantial this dream was became clear to Saakashvili yesterday when his bodyguards panicked at the sight of a Russian fighter in the sky.

They bundled him away and thrust him to the ground covering him with body armour, fearful that the Kremlin might effect "regime change" in its southern neighbour with a single rocket from the sky.

Instead of a Nato guarantee, all he had by way of protection was some sheets of Kevlar and a pack of jumpy guards.

" Nato and the Americans have been humiliated in Georgia," said Jonathan Eyal, of the Royal United Services Institute. " Their guarantees amounted to nothing more than statements and some futile discussions at the UN Security Council." T HERE are dreamers in Russia, too, but the man who leads that country, Vladimir Putin, is a realist, a calculating politician who plans years in advance. The terrible little war unfolding on the fringes of Europe is a story of the clash between Putin the ultra-realist and the dreamy Georgians, who have been exposed to Russia's vengeance thanks to some woolly thinking in the West.

A keen-eyed diplomat could have predicted last month or precisely on 11 July that war would break out in the Caucasus. Up to that date, many people believed that the newly-elected president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, would soften the harsh, anti-Western rhetoric of Putin, who had to resign in May after completing two terms, the maximum allowed.

Medvedev, a lawyer, promised to improve education, clean up corruption and make the courts operate more openly. Rather than wars, he declared that Russia needed a period of quiet to develop.

Admittedly he seemed an unlikely revolutionary: a loyal servant of Putin for 18 years and three inches shorter than Putin, Medvedev had always been Robin to his mentor's Batman.

This promised new era seemed to be dawning when the G8 leaders including Bush, Gordon Brown and Medvedev gathered in Japan on 8 July and issued a statement in support of sanctions against Robert Mugabe and his cronies in Zimbabwe. …


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