PARIS — With divisions sharpening between the West and Russia over the crisis in Georgia, the European Union finds itself as the sole potential broker of a peace deal that can stick.
The stakes are high for Europe - and its means are limited - not only when it comes to Georgia but also Ukraine, another former Soviet republic that has become a key battleground in redrawing the regional power map. Both countries aspire to EU and NATO membership; Moscow considers both to be within its sphere of influence.
On Tuesday, Europe took a step closer to Ukraine during a summit in Paris, offering Kiev an “association agreement” that paves the way for a free-trade zone and possibly a visa-free area. But the 27-member bloc did not offer Kiev the ultimate prize - a promise it might join the European Union down the road.
“This is the maximum that we can go,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current EU president, told reporters after talks with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. The agreement, he noted, “closes absolutely no doors, and even opens some.”
Mr. Sarkozy has also become the top mediator in the Russia-Georgia crisis, shuttling to both countries in August to cinch a deal to end the conflict that erupted over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.
Also, NATO military chiefs met in Bulgaria on Saturday and pledged to support Georgia while trying to avoid a Cold War-esque confrontation with Russia.
In addition, the new NATO-Georgia Commission meets in Tbilisi on Monday to assess the damage from the conflict with Russia, as EU foreign ministers finalize the details of a peace observer mission.
Moscow plans to keep several thousand troops in both South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia.
Critics have dismissed the peace agreement and the European Union’s response to Russia as lacking.
At a summit in Brussels earlier this month, EU leaders refrained from considering tougher measures such as sanctions against Moscow, warning only of postponing discussions on a wide-ranging political and economic agreement with Russia.
And the 200 or so European monitors that Moscow finally agreed to be deployed in Georgia are insufficient for the task at hand, analysts say.
“The peace deal such as it was really was so full of holes and ambiguity that I think that Sarkozy and France have suffered something of a major diplomatic embarrassment here,” said Bobo Low, director of Russia policy at the Center for European Reform in London.
But analysts also note that Europe, for now, has limited leverage against a cocky and aggressive Russia - particularly because it depends on Moscow for a quarter of its natural gas supplies.
Europe is also weakened by its divisions. Former communist members like Poland want the European Union to side strongly with Georgia and Ukraine. Others like Germany and Italy are against an overly tough stance toward Moscow.
“In the short term, Russia controls the situation on the ground,” said Andrew Wilson, Russia and Eastern Europe expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “De facto they won.”
But Mr. Wilson is among those analysts who think Europe´s hand against Russia may strengthen over time - particularly if it diversifies its energy sources.
Given today’s obstacles “the EU overall has done quite well,” said Amanda Akcakoca, policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels.
“The fact is the EU was the only international organization that actually delivered something,” when it came to resolving the Georgia crisis, with Washington largely leaving the matter to Europe, Ms. Akcakoca said.
The divisions between Russia and the West have inevitably drawn references to the Cold War, with Moscow claiming it is willing to brave one and the European Union scrambling to avoid a repeat of the bitter past.
“We need cool heads, not a cold war,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said during an EU foreign ministers meeting last weekend on the Georgian crisis.
“I think the only similarity is that during the Cold War, Europe really played an excellent role in keeping the channels of communication [with the former Soviet Union] open … which is what Europe is doing now,” Ms. Akcakoca said.
But Europe still needs to decide just how much to commit itself to Georgia and Ukraine. Just as it is debating whether to expand the EU borders to include Turkey, it must also decide where they end when it comes to eastern Europe.
Going farther east, naysayers argue, means dragging Europe into a conflict with Russia that it should have no stake in.
For Mr. Wilson of the European Council, the answer is clear.
“Given that Russia’s key aim in Georgia was to show it was the dominant power in the neighborhood and to kind of force us out, the best action is to step up our engagement,” he said - starting with Georgia and Ukraine.