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."
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin shot back that "our American colleagues feel a certain responsibility" for encouraging Saakashvili to take on Russian forces. He described Khalilzad's revelations as "Leninist diplomacy" and told the council yesterday that Russia did not intend to overthrow Saakashvili, the administration's closest ally in the Caucasus region. But he later told reporters it was "no secret . . . that we cannot do business with him."
The Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns weighed in yesterday on the crisis, with both candidates taking a hard line to shore up their foreign policy credentials. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declared, as Bush did several hours later, that "Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st-century Europe."
McCain offered no prescriptions beyond those efforts already underway by the administration and Europe. He urged the United Nations to condemn Russia, saying a resolution by the Security Council would at least "submit Russia to the court of world public opinion."
McCain said Georgia's democratic accomplishments made "Russia's recent actions against the Georgians all the more alarming. In the face of Russian aggression, the very existence of independent Georgia -- and the survival of its democratically elected government -- are at stake."
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee, said that "no matter how this conflict started, Russia has escalated it well beyond the dispute over South Ossetia and invaded another country. . . . There is no possible justification for these attacks."
Obama called for Russia to accept the French-authored peace plan and for "the United States, Europe and all other concerned countries to stand united in condemning this aggression." While Russia should return to its pre-conflict military posture, he said, "we cannot tolerate the unacceptable status quo that led to this escalation."
He supported the deployment of a "genuine international peacekeeping force" to replace previously stationed Russian peacekeepers who have joined the invading force. He also urged Georgia to "refrain from using force" in the separatist regions -- the provocation Moscow has cited for its own use of force.
"The relationship between Russia and the West is long and complicated," Obama said. "There have been many turning points, for good and ill. This is another turning point."
Experts stressed the lengthy buildup of tensions between Russia and Georgia. "All Western governments were really caught off balance here, even though it was not a surprise," said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The senior administration official stressed the administration's efforts in recent months to warn both sides against escalation. "In June, incidents began to occur in South Ossetia," he said. By last week, "the Russians approached us with some concern, asking us to restrain Georgia. We and the Russians had what appeared to be a collaborative effort." He said that Russia "promised it would ask the South Ossetians to stand back" and that the administration was "unambiguous" in urging Georgia not to provoke Moscow.
"Last week those efforts fell apart," said the official, who was authorized to speak with reporters only on background.
Russia had "planned this for some time," the official said. "Their intentions are not clear, but their stated intentions to protect South Ossetia are not credible. . . . This appears to be a full invasion of Georgia, with an end result uncertain."
While "in the short run Russia has a lot of military advantages," he said, "that kind of brutal militarization of one's relations usually doesn't pay off. The history of the Soviet Union ought to be instructive to the people of the Kremlin."
But the official rebuffed all questions about future policy. "What I will not do, but I or someone else will come back to at a future point, pretty soon, is to talk about the U.S. response," he said.
Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Dan Eggen, Michael D. Shear and Josh White in Washington contributed to this report.