U.S. likely to target Russia economically, diplomatically

No military help for beleaguered Georgia

August 12, 2008|By Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes | Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELS TIMES

WASHINGTON - With President Bush warning Russia that its push into Georgia could jeopardize relations with the U.S. and Europe, the United States signaled yesterday that any retribution will 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. But while acknowledging that military aid to Georgia was off the table and sanctions against Russia were impractical, they insisted that the United States 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.

The U.S. policy debate came as Russia's military forces opened new fronts in its conflict with Georgia yesterday, capturing strategic ground near the city of Gori beyond South Ossetia and overrunning a military base outside a separate breakaway province, Georgian authorities said.

The moves heightened fears in Georgia that the Kremlin's ultimate aim is to bring the West-allied nation back into Moscow's fold.

Georgian authorities said their troops and military vehicles based in Gori retreated to within 15 miles of the capital, Tbilisi, after Russian forces pushed into the central city.

Gori had been a staging point for Georgia's all-out assault on the separatist region of South Ossetia last week, setting off an international crisis that diplomats have been scrambling to contain. Russia responded with a display of military force that included bombing raids on Gori and other cities in Georgia where military facilities are based.

Russia's Defense Ministry denied that its troops were in Gori, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

The incursions into Gori and the region outside Abkhazia, Georgia's other separatist-controlled province, marked the first time that Russian troops have entered a part of Georgia not controlled by a Moscow-backed separatist government.

U.S. officials said the most likely options 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 is now likely to be blocked, they said.

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

On its own, officials said, the United States could deny Russia normalized trade status, currently blocked by a 1970s-era statute known as Jackson-Vanik.

In brief remarks from the White House Rose Garden, Bush said that if reports of Russian troops threatening Tbilisi 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 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 rejected. A senior U.S. official directly involved in policymaking cautioned that because Bush had just returned from Beijing yesterday, final decisions on a course of action had not been made.

Over the past 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, for example, 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 United States continued to provide a limited amount of help yesterday, as the last of the 2,000 Georgian troops that had been deployed to Iraq were expected to land back in their home country on U.S. military transport planes last night.

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

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