Bush warns Russia over Georgian provinces

CRAWFORD, Texas - August 16, 2008

"There is no room for debate on this matter," the president said.

Searching for signs of progress, Bush told reporters at his Texas ranch that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's signing Saturday of a cease-fire plan was an important development -- "a hopeful step."

"Now, Russia needs to honor that agreement and withdraw its forces and, of course, military operations" from Georgia, a small former Soviet state on Russia's southwest border.

The Russian foreign minister said Thursday that Georgia could "forget about" getting back two separatist regions in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both much aligned with Russia. Medvedev also met with their leaders in Kremlin this past week, raising the prospect that Moscow could absorb the regions even though the territory is internationally recognized as being within Georgia's borders.

The U.S. says this is a monumental sticking point in resolving the more than weeklong conflict.

"A major issue is Russia's contention that the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia may not be a part of Georgia's future," Bush said, standing alongside Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "These regions are a part of Georgia and the international community has repeatedly made clear that they will remain so."

Bush said that because Georgia is a member of the United Nations, its borders should be respected the same as any other nation's. Moreover, the U.N. Security Council has passed numerous resolutions based on the premise that South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain within Georgia and that international negotiations seek to resolve conflict in those areas.

"Russia itself has endorsed these resolutions," Bush said. "The international community is clear that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia, and the United States fully recognizes this reality."

Bush did not take questions from media gathered in tall grass and cacti outside an office structure at the ranch. But Rice, who arrived at the ranch around 5:30 a.m. local time after a flight from the Georgian capital of Tblisi, chatted with reporters afterward.

She would not specify what, if any, concrete repercussions Russia could face, from the U.S. or international bodies.

"We'll take our time and look at further consequences for what Russia has done, but I would just note, there are already consequences," Rice said. "There have been universal concern within the EU (European Union), the United States about the way Russia has done this. I think you will start to see reports come out about what Russian forces engaged in."

She said that unlike in the past, Russia does care about its reputation in the world "I think actually Russia will care about this talk, because it's not just talk, it's about Russia's standing in the international community."

She said that the agreement that French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated and that both nations have signed is specific about future Russian troop presence in Georgia. According to Rice, the Russian president told Sarkozy, the current leader of the European Union, that the minute that Georgia signed the document that Russian forces would begin to withdraw.

"So from my point of view, and I'm in contact with the French, the Russians are perhaps already not honoring their word," she said.

The cease-fire agreement calls for both forces to pull back to positions they held before fighting erupted Aug. 8. That was when Georgia launched a massive barrage to try to take control of the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia. The Russian army quickly overwhelmed the forces of its small U.S.-backed neighbor, and Moscow's troops drove deep into Georgia.

The agreement, Rice said, is specific about future Russian troop presence in Georgia.

"The world has watched with alarm as Russia invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatened a democratic government elected by its people," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "This act is completely unacceptable to the free nations of the world."

Keeping up the diplomatic pressure, Rice plans to go to Brussels next week for meetings with the foreign ministers of NATO allies and European Union officials.

The crisis has chilled relations between the United States and Russia. The fighting comes as the U.S. is sealing the deal on a missile shield in Europe -- an issue already unraveling ties between the two former Cold War foes. Poland and the U.S. signed a deal Thursday for Poland to accept a missile interceptor base as part of a system the U.S. says is aimed at blocking attacks by adversaries such as Iran.

Moscow feels it is aimed at Russia's missile force. A Russian general was quoted by Interfax News Agency on Friday as saying that by accepting a U.S. missile defense battery, Poland was "exposing itself to a strike."

The missile deal awaits approval by Poland's parliament and signing by Rice during a future visit to Warsaw, possibly in the week ahead.

That is sure to further antagonize Russia. But the U.S. wants to be careful to alienate Moscow and drive Russian leaders away from further integration with the West.

"Russia's actions in Georgia raise serious questions about its role and its intentions in the Europe of the 21st century," Bush said in his Saturday radio address. "In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic, and security structures of the West. The United States has supported those efforts. Now Russia has put its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions.

"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 act to end this crisis."

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