PARIS - This weekend, as war rippled through parts of Georgia, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was urging his Russian and Georgian counterparts simply to speak on the phone. In the end, he succeeded only by threatening both with a public statement that they were not prepared even to do that.
The German officials, who described the delicate episode on the condition of anonymity, said two phone conversations resulted Sunday afternoon, each about 10 minutes long. They illustrated how hard it was going to be for diplomacy to calm a Russian-Georgian conflict that has flared with unexpected ferocity.
Despite calls from some US officials - notably Vice President Dick Cheney - to get tough with Russia, European leaders and diplomats, attached and accustomed to the exercise of soft power, are trying for a cease-fire.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which currently presides over the European Union, is to meet President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia in Moscow as early as today. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will follow suit later this week in long-scheduled meetings with Medvedev and, more important, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France announced yesterday from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, that President Mikhail Saakashvili had signed up to a European plan demanding a cease-fire, a withdrawal of troops to positions they held Aug. 6 and respect for Georgian territorial integrity. Kouchner was headed to Moscow to try to get the Russians on board, although by last evening there was little indication of success.
Sergei Ivanov, deputy prime minister of Russia and a close ally of Putin, said yesterday that Russia was "quite happy with the French mediation."
But, in an interview with CNN, he insisted that Georgia and the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which seek independence, must act first. "We need an agreement between the Georgian leaders - we don't trust them anymore - and the two breakaway republics that military force will never be used again," Ivanov said. "Before that, it is impossible to discuss anything else."
Tough talk aside, diplomacy will proceed: The Georgian foreign minister was expected in Brussels, the EU capital, today for talks with NATO officials. Steinmeier's team was working hard, and the 27 EU foreign ministers were to hear a report tomorrow from Kouchner.
Jens Plotner, a spokesman for Steinmeier, said that Europe sought "to maintain a stance which gives us Europeans the capacity to be an honest broker between the two sides."
Europeans, who share a continent with Russia and depend on Moscow for a quarter of their natural gas needs, believe they are better placed to mediate the conflict than a US administration nearing the end of its mandate that has backed Georgia both as an exemplary democracy and as an aspiring member of NATO.
Georgian officials have urged Western countries to put pressure on Russia by speeding that accession to NATO - something France and Germany blocked at a NATO summit meeting this spring - and questioning the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. Those Games are a personal project for Putin, who favors Sochi as a summer and winter retreat, and skis in nearby mountains, close to the border with disputed Abkhazia.