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Bush's weapon: Russian prestige

August 12, 2008|Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With President Bush warning Russia that its push into Georgia could jeopardize relations with the U.S. and Europe, the administration signaled Monday that any retribution would be aimed at the Russian economy and prestige.

Russia's pummeling of Georgian troops has left Washington with few palatable military options, said administration officials who requested anonymity when discussing internal policy decisions. Acknowledging that military aid to Georgia was off the table and sanctions against Russia were impractical, they insisted the U.S. could take longer-term economic and diplomatic measures that would hit the Kremlin hard.

"Just because we are not rushing to place U.S. infantry in Tbilisi does not mean the world is impotent in the face of this aggression," said a senior Pentagon official.

Officials said the most likely ways to pressure Russia were through global institutions. Russia is attempting to join the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Membership now is likely to be blocked, they said.

Others raised the possibility of kicking Russia out of the Group of 8, the annual gathering of leading industrialized nations.

In brief remarks from the White House Rose Garden, Bush said that if reports of Russian troops threatening Tblisi, the Georgian capital, were accurate, it would mark a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of the conflict. Moscow's actions in Georgia "have substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world," the president said.

But his heated rhetoric contained few concrete proposals, short of backing a French-led diplomatic effort to get Russia to agree to a cease-fire, a plan the Kremlin appears to have already rejected.

A senior U.S. official directly involved in policymaking cautioned that because Bush had just returned from Beijing on Monday, final decisions on a course of action had not been made.

Over the last 48 hours, Russia experts and former military and diplomatic officials have proposed a wide range of ways to push back Russian troops -- from instituting a no-fly zone over Georgian airspace to supplying the Georgian military with air defense systems.

But administration officials said the list of measures actually under consideration -- such as sending humanitarian aid and rebuilding the Georgian military once fighting ends -- is far narrower.

"The regular tool kit does not really work here," said a U.S. government analyst who specializes in Russia's relations with its former republics. "The Russians have plenty of money now, and we need their oil more than they need our credits."

The senior Pentagon official put it more bluntly: "Are you going to go to war with them?"

The U.S. continued to provide a limited amount of help Monday; the last of the 2,000 Georgian troops that had been deployed to Iraq were expected to land in their home country on U.S. military transport planes last night.

The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi also began distributing its supplies of disaster relief -- unlikely to last more than a day, said a State Department spokesman -- and the administration was working with the U.N. to fly in U.S. medical supplies from Germany.

But beyond that, and a decision not to withdraw the 100 or so U.S. military trainers from Tbilisi, most of the support offered by Washington has been rhetorical.

In the short term, U.S. officials believe financial markets will exert their own pressure on Russian behavior. A Democratic Senate aide said the conflict should push up insurance rates for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in the nearby southern Russia town of Sochi, to prohibitive levels. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's efforts to create a financial center in Moscow could also be snuffed out.

The U.S. could continue to deny Russia normalized trade status, which is blocked by a statute known as Jackson-Vanik. The 1974 amendment to the Trade Reform Bill, which is still on the books, tied the Soviet Union's trade status to whether it freely allowed Jewish emigration. An administration official familiar with the thinking of Bush and other senior officials predicted the international community would unite against the Russian action, saying the Kremlin miscalculated by thinking its control of vast stores of oil and natural gas gave it license to throw its military weight around.

"We'll get cold, but how do you [the Russians] expect your economy to stand without selling oil and gas?" the official said. "Did I hear someone say they're buying Russian cars? Russian fashion? It's like putting a gun to your own head and saying, 'Stop or I'll shoot.' "

The senior U.S. official involved in policymaking added that although Russia may have the military upper hand over Georgia, its heavy-handed treatment of a small neighbor may backfire in the long term.

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