Bush demands Russia quit Georgia

August 13, 2008 7:48:40 PM PDT
President Bush put the U.S. more firmly than ever on Georgia's side in its conflict with Russia on Wednesday, sending humanitarian aid on American military planes to help the embattled ex-Soviet republic and displaying growing impatience with Moscow's aggression. Six days into the fighting in the tiny, impoverished country wedged between Russia and Turkey on the Black Sea, Bush said Moscow's apparent violation of a cease-fire agreement puts its aspirations for global acceptance at risk. In brief but stern remarks from the White House, the president demanded that Russia end all military activity inside its neighbor and withdraw all troops sent in recent days into Georgian territory.

Amid some fear that Russian troops may be setting up for some type of medium-term occupation of parts of Georgia or even have intentions to press on to its capital of Tbilisi, Bush promised to "rally the free world in the defense of a free Georgia."

Bush postponed Thursday's planned start of a two-week Texas vacation for a couple of days to monitor developments. He also dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Paris for talks with Europeans and then to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi "to demonstrate our solidarity with the Georgian people," and announced that a massive U.S. aid effort for devastated Georgians was already under way.

"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," Rice said just hours before leaving for France. "Things have changed."

Russian tanks on Wednesday rumbled into the Georgian city of Gori, a hub along the country's main east-west highway, and Georgian officials said it was looted and bombed. An Associated Press reporter later saw dozens of tanks and military vehicles roaring south, deeper into Georgia. Bush also cited evidence that Russian forces have entered and taken positions in the port city of Poti and that Russia was blowing up Georgian vessels.

Rice said Russia's actions, taken together, show that it "has brutally pushed this military operation well beyond the bounds of anything that might have related to" the protection of Russian peacekeepers who have been stationed in the separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the early 1990s.

Later in the day, Georgian officials said the Russians pulled out of the western town of Zugdidi, near Abkhazia.

But a U.S. intelligence official said it is believed that Russians are consolidating their positions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are loyal to Moscow.

The crisis erupted last week when Georgia tried to secure control over South Ossetia. Russia's fierce military response expanded to Abkhazia along Georgia's coast, and ended up on purely Georgian soil.

According to defense officials, it took until Wednesday afternoon for the U.S. to have what they called more robust intelligence on Russian movements around Gori. With the military's eyes and ears focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, intelligence-gathering was hampered through the weekend until the Pentagon authorized the repositioning of some satellites and was able to meld that data with reports from the ground, the officials said.

Bush's statement Wednesday represented his clearest - though still unspecified - threat to Moscow.

"In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century," the president said. "The United States has supported those efforts. Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions."

Tough words aside, there appears to be little the U.S. can - or will - do to punish Russia. In one demonstration of the administration's sensitivity over its actions, Bush has taken just one question on the crisis, during a TV interview at the Beijing Olympics, and has never publicly discussed any specific penalty.

The administration and its allies are debating whether to expel Moscow from an exclusive club of wealthy nations. The U.S. already has pulled out of a joint NATO-Russia military exercise scheduled for Friday in the North Pacific. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. will be reviewing other military-to-military cooperative programs with Russia as well.

Bush also gave repeated and unqualified assurances of "America's unwavering support for Georgia's democratic government."

And he announced that U.S. military assets and personnel would be deploying into the conflict zone. Though they are only going on a humanitarian mission, Bush made a point of noting that "we will use U.S. aircraft, as well as naval forces" to distribute supplies. He warned Russia not to impede relief efforts in any way.

All this appeared designed to answer criticism that Bush has not done enough to stand by his 2005 pledge, made from the center of Tbilisi before tens of thousands of citizens, to "stand with" the people of Georgia.

Since the 2003 Rose Revolution toppled a corrupt, Moscow-friendly government and placed President Mikhail Saakashvili in office, Georgia has staked its future on leaning West. Bush has rewarded Saakashvili by holding Georgia up as a global democratic inspiration, supporting its request to join NATO, and training and overhauling its military.

But only hours before Bush's remarks Wednesday, Saakashvili called the Western response of late inadequate. "I feel that they are partly to blame," said Saakashvili, who talked with Bush by phone earlier in the day. "Not only those who commit atrocities are responsible ... but so are those who fail to react."

Bush's more pro-Georgia emphasis adds additional tension to a relationship with Russia already severely frayed by disputes over Moscow's democratic backsliding, a planned U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe and Western support for Kosovo's independence.

Rice signaled that Russia should not hope for a friendlier view under a new administration next year. She said both presumptive presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have backed the Bush administration's efforts.

From Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov derided Georgia's leadership as "a special project of the United States" and said the U.S. will have to choose "either support for a virtual project, or real partnership on issues that really demand collective action." This was a reference to U.S. cooperation with Russia in the U.N. Security Council on Iran, North Korea and other global hot spots.

Despite extensive intelligence resources and deep ties to the Georgian military, the Bush administration has scrambled to determine what's happening on the ground, for instance whether Russia was honoring the cease-fire or threatening Tbilisi. Briefings on the matter keep getting scheduled, then postponed, and then canceled.

"There are confused reports and varying reports that are coming in," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "It's not the easiest thing in the world given the geography and the cutoff of information."

Still, Perino called the reports that Russia had violated Tuesday's cease-fire "credible."


Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.