WASHINGTON – President Bush said Monday 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 the crisis.
U.S. officials made clear that neither the United States nor NATO was contemplating a military response to Russian actions. Instead, the 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 has rejected.
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.”
The implication, he said, is that “Russia has the right to intervene anywhere in the former Soviet Union.”
While the administration Monday recalled the days of Soviet empire, the Russians suggested that the 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 on Monday in response to a Georgian government request.
The contentious exchanges continued at the U.N., where the Security Council met behind closed doors and France on Monday night circulated – and Russia rejected – a cease-fire resolution.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared that “Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st-century Europe.”
McCain offered no prescriptions beyond those efforts under way 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, D-Ill., said “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.”