By Dan Eggen and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 13, 2008 4:50 PM
President Bush today warned Russia to honor a cease-fire agreement in its conflict with Georgia, saying that reports of ongoing military actions by Moscow "raise serious questions about its intentions" and threaten its standing in the world.
In a brief statement in the Rose Garden at the White House, Bush said he is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Paris for negotiations over the conflict, and then to Tbilisi to "convey America's unwavering support for Georgia's democratic government." A massive humanitarian relief effort is also underway, using U.S. military planes and ships, Bush said.
"The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia," Bush said. "We insist that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected."
Rice later told reporters that she spoke today with her counterpart in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and insisted that Russia "live up to the obligations it undertook just 24 hours ago" in a French-brokered cease-fire accord, including a pledge to keep Georgian ports, sea lanes and air routes open for what she said would be a "continuous and robust" humanitarian mission led by the U.S. military.
She called for an end to Russian military activities in Georgia "so that Russia can begin to dig out of the hole that it's gotten itself into." She charged that Russia "seriously overreached" in Georgia and "engaged in activities that could not possibly be associated simply with the crisis in South Ossetia," the breakaway region of Georgia that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists. She cited the bombing of ports and the city of Gori, a Russian flanking maneuver in western Georgia and the cutting of roads between Gori and the capital, Tbilisi.
"And that is why Russia is starting to face international condemnation for what it is doing," Rice said in one testy exchange with a Russian reporter. "This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed."
Earlier, Bush emphasized his skepticism over whether Russia was adhering to a provisional cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in his capacity as the current president of the European Union. Flanked by Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Bush referred to reports that Russian troops were poised to block the country's major highway and had entered the port city of Poti, blocking access to the port and blowing up Georgian vessels.
"We expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country," Bush said.
Yet Bush's statement underscored the limited options available to the United States, which has neither the wherewithal nor willingness to enter the conflict militarily or to otherwise broach armed conflict with Russia. So far, the administration has proposed little in the way of concrete consequences for Moscow if it does not comply with U.S. demands. Instead, it has focused on Russia's standing in the world and its desire to be accepted as a major player in international organizations.
"Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions," Bush said today. "To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis."
In a State Department press conference this afternoon, Rice said that a violation of the cease-fire agreement "will only serve to deepen the isolation into which Russia is moving."
Rice is scheduled to leave later today for her trip to France and Georgia.
Bush's remarks came amid reports from local officials and eyewitnesses that Russian troops and armor moved deeper into Georgian territory in apparent violation of a new cease-fire agreement. Russian officials said the movement of troops was aimed only at "demilitarizing" areas near the border with South Ossetia, the province at the heart of the conflict.
Bush last spoke about the Georgian conflict late Monday after arriving in Washington from the Olympic Games in Beijing, when he condemned the "dramatic and brutal escalation" of the conflict and alleged that the Russian incursion into Georgia might be aimed at toppling the pro-American government in Tbilisi.
Bush said he spoke this morning with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a staunch friend of the United States, and Sarkozy, who is leading international negotiations over the cease-fire.
The president said that Gates would oversee a "vigorous and ongoing" humanitarian relief effort for Georgia and that a C-17 cargo plane was already en route to the ravaged area. Bush said that other U.S. aircraft and naval forces will be involved in delivering humanitarian and medical supplies.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino later said that the first U.S. cargo plane landed in Georgia with supplies.
Saakashvili caused an uproar when he said during a television appearance that Bush's pledge of humanitarian aid meant that the U.S. military will take control of "Georgian ports and airports." The Pentagon swiftly contradicted the claim, which Saakashvili did not repeat in a subsequent interview aired this afternoon on CNN.
"We are not looking to, nor do we need to, take control of any air or sea ports to conduct this mission," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
In his statement, Bush made no mention of other steps taken by the administration to express its displeasure with Russia, including cancellations of a meeting between Russia and NATO's governing board and a NATO-Russia naval exercise that had been planned for Friday.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has also suggested that Russia could be removed or blocked from membership in Western-dominated economic and political institutions, such as the Group of Eight industrialized countries.
White House officials also announced today that Bush was postponing a scheduled vacation at his Crawford, Tex., ranch because of the Georgian crisis. Bush was supposed to depart Washington tomorrow but will now likely leave Friday or Saturday, officials said.
"The capabilities of the president to communicate with his team exists wherever he goes, but there is a benefit to face-to-face communication," press secretary Dana Perino said in explaining the delay. "And so the president just wanted one more day to be with his team."