By Dan Eggen and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 14, 2008
The Bush administration mixed strong rhetoric with modest action yesterday in response to Russia's continued military incursion in Georgia, warning that Moscow's international aspirations are threatened if it does not honor a negotiated cease-fire in the conflict.
President Bush announced the start of a humanitarian aid program for Georgia using U.S. military airplanes and ships, although officials said the effort so far includes only two scheduled flights. One shipment arrived later yesterday and another is to land today. He also dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a diplomatic trip that will take her to Paris and then to Georgia's capital of Tbilisi to show "America's unwavering support."
"The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia," Bush said during an appearance at the White House. "We insist that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected."
Yet Bush's statement, along with the moderate measures that came with it, served to underscore the limited options available to the United States, which has neither the wherewithal nor the willingness to enter into a military conflict with Russia on its territorial border.
The administration has proposed relatively little in the way of concrete consequences for Moscow if it does not comply with U.S. demands, focusing instead on Russia's standing in the world and its perceived 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.
The remarks came amid reports from local officials and eyewitnesses that Russian troops and armor had moved deeper into Georgian territory yesterday 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 breakaway pro-Russia province at the heart of the conflict.
At an afternoon news conference before her hastily scheduled trip, Rice compared the crisis to one of the seminal events of the Soviet era. "This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it," she said. "Things have changed."
The two major presidential candidates, whose aides have sparred in recent days over the relative wisdom of their statements on Georgia, both weighed in with words of support for the administration's latest actions. Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama also called for rethinking U.S. and international agreements in the wake of the conflict.
"As we move forward, the United States and Europe must review our multilateral and bilateral arrangements with Russia in light of its actions," Obama said in a statement released in Hawaii, where he is vacationing.
McCain, speaking to reporters in Birmingham, Mich., also praised Bush's announcement but said he was concerned the cease-fire did not do enough to guarantee Georgia's "territorial integrity."
"I'm interested in good relations between the United States and Russia," he said. "But in the 21st century, nations don't invade other nations.''
Flanked by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), McCain also said that "it isn't a time for partisanship, sniping between campaigns."
An aide to Obama had characterized McCain's immediate hard-line stance against Russia last week as "belligerent," while Lieberman had said Obama's more neutral initial statement showed a lack of experience.
The muscular rhetoric in the United States followed complaints from Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, that the administration was not doing enough to help the small country. Saakashvili's government contributed troops to Iraq and earned support from Bush for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a proposal Russia strongly opposes.
Saakashvili also caused an uproar when he said that Bush's pledge of humanitarian aid meant the U.S. military would take control of "Georgian ports and airports." The Pentagon swiftly contradicted his statement, and Saakashvili did not repeat it during a subsequent television appearance.
But the administration appeared to be sending mixed signals with its aid shipments, pointedly using military planes and ships and warning Russia not to block sea, air or land transport routes, while insisting it had no plans to intervene militarily.
"This is not an attempt to put military assets in closer proximity to inject U.S. forces into this conflict," a senior defense official said.
An Air Force C-17 cargo plane with medical supplies, shelters and bedding, dispatched from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., landed yesterday in Tbilisi. Onboard was what the Pentagon called a 12-man "assessment team," which will stay in Georgia to act as liaison. Some team members had served in the country as part of more than 140 U.S. military and contract civilian trainers who previously worked with the Georgian military.
U.S. officials denied reports in the semi-official Russian media that U.S. advisers have been working with Georgian combat troops. On Monday, the U.S. military transported about 2,000 Georgian troops home from duty as part of the multinational force in Iraq.
The scale of the planned U.S. aid appears sizable for a brief conflict with an unknown, but limited, number of casualties. The U.S. Embassy has already released $1.2 million worth of disaster packages, including medical supplies, tents, blankets, bedding, hygiene items, clothing, beds and cots. The State Department and other U.S. agencies have agreed to send at least $670,000 worth of other supplies, officials said.
Despite Bush's reference to using "naval forces," the defense official said there were no immediate plans for use of such vessels. "I wouldn't expect a naval ship to be showing up in the Black Sea until we've determined what, precisely, the need is," the official said.
Bush said he spoke yesterday morning with Saakashvili and with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the cease-fire agreement. Rice will have lunch with Sarkozy at an official summer residence in the south of France, then will stay overnight in Paris before traveling to Georgia, officials said.
The haste with which Rice's trip was put together -- the decision was made at the White House yesterday morning just before Bush emerged in the Rose Garden -- meant that the Boeing 757 aircraft normally used by the secretary of state was unavailable. Vice President Cheney used it yesterday for a fundraising trip to Colorado, and Rice was relegated to a smaller Air Force C-40, with limits on staff, security and reporters, officials said.
The conflict in Georgia also upended Bush's travel plans. He decided to postpone by one or two days a planned vacation beginning today at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.
But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is overseeing the aid efforts, plans to proceed with his vacation at the end of the week, the senior defense official said. He is not scheduled to return to the Pentagon until almost Labor Day.
Staff writer Robert Barnes in Birmingham, Mich., contributed to this report.