Bush Questions Moscow's Motives

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

President Bush said yesterday that Russia's military attacks in Georgia may be designed to unseat the pro-U.S. government there, a move he warned would represent a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of a conflict that American officials have begun to describe as a return to Cold War-style aggression.

In a brief and unusually stern Rose Garden statement shortly after his return from the Beijing Olympics, Bush called Russia's actions "unacceptable in the 21st century." He urged Moscow to withdraw its forces from Georgia and accept a European peace plan.

But beyond a reference to damage inflicted upon "Russia's standing in the world," Bush made no mention of any potential consequences if Russia fails to comply. As European leaders began shuttling between the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and Moscow and French President Nicolas Sarkozy prepared to travel there today, the administration was searching for options to deal with a crisis it described in the most dire terms.

U.S. officials made clear that neither the United States nor NATO was contemplating a military response to Russian actions. Instead, the current strategy appeared to involve pressing for a cease-fire, a return by the militaries of both sides to their positions of last week, and international monitoring -- all of which Moscow so far has rejected.

Explicitly evoking the Cold War era, a senior administration official said Russia's "disproportionate" aggression "recalls variously the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and even the Soviet invasion of Georgia in 1922."

"This kind of brutal attack has happened before against Georgia and against other countries that the Russians want to dominate," the official said in a conference call organized following Bush's brief remarks. The implication, he said, is that "Russia has the right to intervene anywhere in the former Soviet Union."

With yesterday's events, the administration's relationship with Russia seemed to come full circle, back to the tension of Bush's first months in office, when conservative Republicans regarded Russia as a threat and warned the new president not to trust Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the intervening years were Bush's favorable glance into Putin's "soul" and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 2006 assertion that Washington and Moscow enjoyed "probably the best relations that have been there for quite some time."

Bush said yesterday: "Russia's actions this week have raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. These actions have substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world. And these actions jeopardize Russia's relations with the United States and Europe."

While the administration yesterday recalled the days of Soviet empire, the Russians suggested that invaders and occupiers of Iraq lacked the moral authority to offer criticism. In remarks broadcast on state television, Putin, now Russia's premier, decried Western "cynicism" for defending what he said was Georgian aggression against separatist enclaves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "They, of course, had to hang Saddam Hussein for destroying several Shiite villages," he said of the United States.

"It's a pity that some of our partners, instead of helping, are in fact trying to get in the way," Putin said. He was referring, he said, to the airlift of "Georgia's military contingent from Iraq effectively into the combat zone." U.S. military C-17s flew Georgia's 2,000-troop contingent in the coalition force in Iraq back to Tbilisi yesterday in response to a Georgian government request.

The contentious exchanges continued at the United Nations, where the Security Council met behind closed doors and France last night circulated -- and Russia rejected -- a draft cease-fire resolution.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told CNN that Russia was "nostalgic . . . about the loss of empire they had." In a rare breach of diplomatic protocol, Khalilzad repeated comments he made to the Security Council on Sunday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had privately told Rice that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "must go."

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