By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website
In a potentially significant swing of expert Western opinion, a leading British think tank has urged that Nato membership should not be granted to Georgia or Ukraine.
"The policy of Nato enlargement now would be a strategic error," said Dr John Chipman, Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
"There is no case for accelerating membership for Georgia and Ukraine. There is a strong case for a pause," he said in remarks introducing the IISS's annual review of world affairs, the Strategic Survey.
Current Nato policy, decided at a summit meeting in Bucharest in April, is that both countries should become members eventually but no timetable has been set.
Who started the war?
The IISS intervention shows that following the war in Georgia, a debate is growing about whether a confrontational approach to Russia is the best one.
The IISS is highly critical of Georgian actions - in contrast to the support Georgia has received from the US and some European countries, notably Britain. Naturally, if Georgia is faulted, then less blame can be put on Russia, whatever its reaction or, as some hold, its over-reaction.
Dr Chipman said that the "balance of evidence suggests that Georgia started this war".
Georgia has claimed that Russian forces had already started to enter South Ossetia by the time it acted. Russia has said that it responded to a Georgian attack.
Pressure seems to be growing for an international inquiry into the actual sequence of events.
The IISS position will undermine sympathy for Georgia and its leader President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Its analysis is that Georgia ignored American warnings not to go into South Ossetia and is therefore an unreliable partner at present.
'No give and take'
But the importance of the intervention goes beyond that, as it calls for a calmer approach to relations with Russia.
"There have been major errors of presentation of policy towards Russia. The US and Nato have in the past told Russia to accept whatever was happening. There was no give and take. We are disappointed at the way some Western leaders pushed the Cold War button after Georgia," said Dr Chipman. "We should not over-inflate the crisis."
He added: "The events of August 2008 do not signify fresh steps towards a new Cold War, because neither side wants one and the stakes are too low to warrant one."
Role for EU
Another IISS expert, Oksana Antonenko, reflected the IISS view that with a decline in US influence, the EU should be more active in formulating policy initiatives - but lacked the means to do so.
She said it was good timing that France - a major, influential country -held the EU presidency during the Georgia crisis.
"It highlighted the fact that EU institutions are highly incapable ones," she said.
"We urgently need a mechanism to stop the presidency from fluctuating between different member states."
The Lisbon Treaty does provide for a permanent presidency and a strengthened foreign policy representative, but it has not been ratified.
The IISS report came on a day when Nato defence ministers were meeting in London. There is some feeling in Nato that its priority should be to do more to reassure its existing members, especially those close to Russia, rather than rushing to bring in new members. And that is a view supported in the IISS report.
A great deal will depend on the views of the next American president. The Bush administration is all for pushing on with membership for Ukraine and Georgia, and the issue will be taken up again at Nato meetings in December.
A British official predicted that there would be no slowing of support for Georgia and no disposition to reward Russia.
But no quick decisions are likely in the current uncertain state of affairs.
- Georgia and Ukraine 'shouldn't join Nato' - By Paul Reynolds, BBC News website