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U.S. asks: How far will Russia go?

August 11, 2008|Tom Hamburger and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The United States and its allies scrambled Sunday to respond to Russia's attack on Georgia, including asking Moscow whether it intended to overthrow democratically elected President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The activity highlighted international concerns about how far Russia would go and whether its ultimate goal was to seize the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and restore domination over a former part of the Soviet Union.

But the answer to those questions remained elusive.

President Bush, in Beijing for the Olympics, continued his own high-level diplomacy and spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union and shares Bush's general view of the situation in Georgia's separatist republic of South Ossetia.

On Saturday, he spoke with Saakashvili and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

"This violence is unacceptable," Bush said today in an interview with NBC, expressing "grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and . . . [the] bombing outside of South Ossetia.

"My administration has been engaged with both sides in this, trying to get a cease-fire," he said. ". . . There needs to be an international mediation."

At a news briefing for reporters in Beijing, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the United States was "100% focused on solving this peacefully. . . . We respect Georgia's territorial integrity and we expect Russia to do the same."

But worry tinged the comments of Western officials as reports of casualties and destruction escalated. The violence follows growing tension between Washington and the Kremlin over the future of nations -- like Georgia -- that were once part of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

In Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney telephoned Saakashvili, assuring him that "Russian aggression will not go unanswered." His spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, said the vice president told the Georgian leader that Russia's continued attacks "would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community."

White House deputy national security advisor James Jeffrey offered a more sanguine tone during the news briefing in Beijing, telling reporters that the Russians had informally provided an indication that, with a Georgian troop withdrawal and other steps, "this situation could be resolved peacefully. So . . . they have held that door open."

Georgian troops late last week attacked the pro-Russian province, apparently in an attempt to retake control. South Ossetia has been largely autonomous since a violent break in the early 1990s.

For much of the last two years, Washington and Moscow have been engaged in an escalating war of words over U.S. plans to base a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. At the same time, the Russians have chafed as relations warmed between the U.S. and some of the former Soviet states.

Under Saakashvili, Georgia has repeatedly sent soldiers to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2,000 troops that were patrolling the Iraqi border with Iran are now being sent back to Georgia with U.S. help. The U.S. also has nearly 150 military trainers in Georgia to help modernize its armed forces.

In New York on Sunday, the United Nations Security Council entered its fourth day of emergency session. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad condemned Russia for rejecting attempts to end the bloodshed and accused the Kremlin of trying to overthrow Saakashvili.

At one point, Khalilzad called Russia's aggression "a campaign of terror against the Georgian population."

This prompted a heated response from Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin: "This statement, Ambassador, is absolutely unacceptable, particularly from the lips of the permanent representative of a country whose actions we are aware of, including with regard to civilian populations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia."

The Bush administration said Sunday that it would seek a resolution condemning Russia's military actions, but Russia holds a veto as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. The council has been meeting since late Thursday, trying to come up with a cease-fire agreement, but so far talks have ended up in wrangling.

During Sunday's meeting, Khalilzad asked Churkin repeatedly, "Is your government's objective regime change in Georgia?"

Churkin responded, "Sometimes there are occasions when, and we know from history, there are different leaders who come to power either democratically or semi-democratically . . . and they become an obstacle."

Georgia's representative to the U.N., Irakli Alasania, said Churkin's response confirms to him that "what the Russian Federation is seeking through this military aggression and invasion is to change the democratically elected Georgian government."

When asked again, Churkin said: "I won't respond to that. I believe we've had enough polemics today."

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