By Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 11, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 11 -- The White House stepped up its criticism of Russia for escalating the conflict in Georgia, with President Bush warning Monday that Russia's "disproportionate response" is unacceptable and Vice President Cheney adding that the crisis threatens long-term relations between Moscow and Washington.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations suggested Sunday that Russia is seeking "regime change" in Georgia, after Russia's foreign minister reportedly told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "must go."
The high-level public statements from the Bush administration underscored the depth of its concerns about Russia's offensive against a U.S. ally. Georgia sustained more attacks Monday despite its withdrawal of troops from South Ossetia, the region that has been in dispute.
But U.S. options may be limited, given Washington's need for Russian help on a wide range of issues.
Bush, interviewed Monday by NBC at the Olympics, called for a cease-fire and for both nations to return to positions they held before hostilities commenced on Friday. He said that he told Russian leaders "that we strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia."
"I was very firm with Vladimir Putin [in Beijing on Friday] -- he and I have got a good relationship -- just as I was firm with the Russian president," Bush said, referring to Dmitry Medvedev. "Hopefully this will get resolved peacefully."
Cheney was even more pointed, telling Saakashvili on Sunday afternoon that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered," according to his press secretary.
Briefing reporters traveling with Bush on Sunday, Deputy National Security Adviser James F. Jeffrey would not rule out the use of American force to assist Georgia but said that was not the current focus of U.S. efforts.
"Right now our focus is on working with both sides, with the Europeans and with a whole variety of international institutions and organizations, to get the fighting to stop," Jeffrey said.
Rice spoke with Lavrov by telephone on Sunday, one of several conversations the two have had since Friday on resolving the crisis, and Khalilzad referenced their exchange in an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.
The United States convened the session on Georgia in the hopes of increasing international pressure on Russia. The meeting quickly degenerated into a quarrel between the U.S. and Russian envoys that recalled some of the most contentious U.N. spats between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Lavrov, Khalilzad said, told Rice "that a democratically elected president of Georgia -- and I quote -- must go." And the U.S. ambassador challenged Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin, "Is your government's objective regime change in Georgia, the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Georgia?"
"Regime change is an American expression," Churkin countered. And he scolded Khalilzad for revealing the contents of a secret diplomatic discussion.
Churkin accused the United States of aiding and abetting Saakashvili, saying more than 100 U.S. advisers were providing training to Georgian forces on the eve of their military offensive against South Ossetia, and suggested that U.S. officials may have given Georgia the "green light" to strike.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.