WASHINGTON — Two top U.S. officials, confronting charges that the Bush administration sent mixed signals to Russia and Georgia before last month's conflict over separatist South Ossetia, said that both countries had been warned to avoid armed conflict.
But the officials also acknowledged in Senate testimony that the administration was still debating whether to take stronger action against Russia for its incursion into the Caucasus nation last month, focusing for now on the shorter-term goal of getting Russian troops to leave Georgia proper.
The testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee laid bare the multiple and occasionally conflicting pressures buffeting the administration over the Georgia crisis -- and revealed the U.S. government's struggle to form a coherent policy to deal with a newly assertive Kremlin even before hostilities broke out.
Appearing before the panel were Daniel Fried, the head of European affairs at the State Department, who dealt personally with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in the weeks leading up to the Russian incursion, and Eric Edelman, the head of policy at the Pentagon.
Democratic senators alternately accused the administration of failing to take stronger, concrete action against Russia for its military offensive and of inflammatory rhetoric that put at risk cooperation with Moscow on a range of U.S. foreign policy needs, including containing Iranian nuclear ambitions and thwarting terrorists.
Fried said measures such as excluding Russia from the World Trade Organization and the Group of 8 leading industrial nations were not "off the table" within the administration. But he said the U.S. was reluctant to inflame tensions while hoping that Russia would reverse direction in Georgia.
"First, let's get the Russian troops out," Fried said, when pressed on whether the U.S. would respond more concretely. "Let's help Georgia recover, stabilize itself, and let's think through very carefully the consequences for our relations with Russia, working with Europe."
Russian forces swept through two pro-Moscow breakaway republics and into Georgia proper last month after Georgian forces tried to retake one of them, South Ossetia. The West has been pressing Moscow to pull back its troops and return to the status quo before the clash, with a limited force of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the other separatist republic.
Russia on Tuesday unveiled plans to leave a total of 7,600 troops in the two republics. The announcement came a day after Moscow agreed to withdraw its soldiers from Georgia proper.
Russia has officially recognized the independence of the republics, and on Tuesday opened diplomatic relations with their self-declared national governments. So far, Nicaragua is the only country that has joined Moscow in recognizing the separatists.
U.S. officials have canceled joint military exercises with Russia and shelved a civil nuclear agreement. However, the main reaction by the U.S. and its allies has been rhetorical.
Countering Democratic arguments that the administration was reacting too cautiously, Fried and Edelman noted that the Kremlin appeared to be trying to exploit differences within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in hopes of splitting the alliance. They argued that it was essential to stay on the same page as NATO allies when dealing with Russia.
Fried dismissed charges that condemnation of Russia's action was too modest a response, saying the Kremlin was facing diplomatic isolation.
"You're quite right that a couple of communiques that use the word 'condemn,' by themselves, if this is all there is, does not constitute a lasting lesson," Fried said. "But it is a pretty good beginning."
Still, Fried and Edelman remained vague about how the administration might attempt to get tougher, sidestepping several questions from the committee's Democratic chairman, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, about what measures the administration was actively considering.
Fried went so far as to suggest that, though the administration adamantly opposed any Russian move to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it was willing to allow de facto Russian control of the regions.
He said that it was a prime American goal to prevent Georgia's sovereignty from being "crushed."
But he noted that such an outcome meant "Russia will have succeeded in grabbing two small provinces and nothing more," a tacit acknowledgment that the U.S. may not oppose Russian military occupation of the republics for an extended period.
Still, Fried said he believed that the prospect of diplomatic and economic isolation could begin to build pressure on Russia. He argued that the Kremlin needs Western markets and capital investment for growth and economic diversification.
"Although their bank accounts are full of money earned by exporting oil and natural gas, Russia has substantial weaknesses," Fried said. "Russian leaders are mistaken if they think they can, like the Soviet Union, live and prosper in their own world, apart from the West."
Times staff writer Megan K. Stack in Moscow contributed to this report.