By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008
The Bush administration yesterday decried Russia's use of strategic bombers and ballistic missiles in Georgia as a "dangerous escalation" of the hostilities there, but said it will not immediately send an envoy to help mediate the crisis.
"It's hard for us to understand what the Russian plan is," said a senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. "People can argue back and forth over who shot first," but the Russian response is "far disproportionate to whatever threat" it may have perceived in the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia.
With residents of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, in a "panic" amid fears that the city will be bombed, the U.S. Embassy there has been placed on "authorized departure" status, meaning that dependents can leave at U.S. expense, the official said in a conference call.
The Bush administration is also arranging to transport as many as 2,000 Georgian troops back home from Iraq. Georgian forces make up the third-largest contingent in the multinational force in Iraq, after the United States and Britain.
"If [Georgian officials] request it, we will facilitate [the transfer] within a relatively short amount of time" with commercial or U.S. military aircraft, the official said. "We have communicated with the Russians what our obligations are" to Georgia.
The U.S. military has about 130 personnel in Georgia, where they train troops for the force in Iraq and for Georgian defense. All have been accounted for since Russian forces moved into South Ossetia on Friday, U.S. spokesmen have said.
The official speaking to reporters yesterday gave no indication that U.S. or NATO forces would come to Georgia's aid.
"We're not talking about anything beyond international diplomacy at this point," the official said.
Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that the administration would send an envoy as part of a mediation effort organized by the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, she decided yesterday not to do so immediately, the official added.
"Our team that handles Georgia is not so big," he said. Rather than leave Rice without informed advice, he said, it was decided to "focus into getting our response thought through . . . and then send an envoy into the mediation phase."
The official said the United States and its European allies are still "working through" the parameters of a response. Rice "spoke to several of her European counterparts today," he said. "I'd rather not speculate on steps" they might decide on. "But we need to move very, very quickly," he said.
He said he did not see "any possibility whatsoever" of the Georgian conflict broadening to include others. "It's a very localized conflict that appears aimed at threatening the democratic experiment in Georgia," he said.
Rice has spoken several times with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov since the crisis began.
In a statement yesterday in Beijing, where he is attending the Olympics, President Bush called for an "immediate halt to violence" and said, "The United States takes this very seriously."
With a strategy still being decided and few readily apparent options to influence Russia's behavior, the Bush administration appeared to focus on trying to understand Moscow's motivation for unleashing sophisticated weapons against a relatively defenseless neighbor.
"Many speculate that part of the reason for the use of disproportionate force is because Russia doesn't want to see Georgia moving toward NATO," the official said. The United States has supported Georgia's interest in the Atlantic alliance.
Moscow has reportedly rejected any mediation in the conflict, and the U.S. official noted that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had been quoted in the Russian press as calling Georgia's action against South Ossetians "genocide." "Those are some pretty powerful words that are not helping us to end the violence," he said. "How could it be legitimate that any leader in this situation would reject international mediation?"
Although Georgia is not without blame in initiating the conflict, he said, the Georgians have now offered a cease-fire. "Russia's response is to step up attacks, continue bombing," he said. "It's very difficult for us to understand that."