US warns Russia on Georgia but readies concessions

Rice rushed to former Soviet republic with new cease-fire plan.

rice sarkozy kouchner 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice sarkozy kouchner 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The United States warned sternly Thursday of a long-term rupture with Russia if Moscow does not quickly abide by its promise to withdraw its fighting forces from Georgia. In contrast to the tough talk, Condoleezza Rice rushed to the former Soviet republic with a new cease-fire plan offering concessions to Moscow. The new document would allow Russian peacekeepers who were in the disputed South Ossetia region before the fighting broke out a week ago to stay, and they would now be permitted to patrol in a strip up to six miles outside the area, US officials said. But that allowance would be temporary, and details were still to be worked out, the officials said. Issuing urgent statements in Washington and abroad, President George W. Bush and his foreign policy lieutenants sought to jawbone Russia into compliance while taking a US military response off the table - suggesting strict limits to how far he was willing to go in the waning days of his presidency. Bush repeated his call for the cease-fire to be honored and demanded that Russia respect the "territorial integrity" of Georgia. He spent nearly four hours being briefed at CIA headquarters about the war on terror and the grim situation in Georgia. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he saw no need to invoke American military force in the nearly week-old war, despite continued uncertainty about Russia's next move. "The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia. I see no reason to change that approach today," Gates said at the Pentagon. Standing alongside, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, said it appeared Russia was "generally complying" with the truce. But then Georgian leaders said a convoy of more than 100 Russian tanks and other vehicles had moved from the western city of Zugdidi deeper into their nation before stopping. Cartwright had said Russian forces appeared to be forming up in Georgia in preparation for withdrawal. Russian and Georgian forces have been fighting since Georgia sought to regain control of a breakaway province. Fighting spread beyond the small mountainous enclave and has left Georgian cities, a key port and roads badly damaged. The United Nations estimates 100,000 people have been uprooted by the conflict, while estimates of the dead range from scores to thousands. Gates described a broad humanitarian effort for Georgians displaced or harmed by the fighting. He said there was no need for US fighting forces there, although the relief effort is being run by the American military. The Pentagon says there are fewer than 100 US military personnel on the ground in Georgia now, including about 60 US Special Forces and Marines who've been there for a while to train local troops on their way to deployment in Iraq. Now that the Georgian contingent has been called home from Iraq and the training mission suspended, the trainers would be available to help out in the current crisis. "I think what happens in the days and months to come will determine the future course of US-Russian relations," Gates said. "My personal view is that there need to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state." Gates told reporters he believes Russia has decided "to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West," actions that call into question US attempts to forge solid political, economic and military partnerships with Russia. Rice was in Paris issuing another urgent call on Russia to honor a previously announced cease-fire ahead of her mission to Georgia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been leading Western efforts to stop the fighting, said the documents are "intended to consolidate the cease-fire." Russia and Georgia have agreed to a truce, but Russian tanks and troops remain. Rice was heading to the Georgia capital Tbilisi on Friday carrying the document for signature by President Mikhail Saakashvili. She had no plans to visit Moscow. Rice has not ruled out a diplomatic mission to Russia sometime soon, but the United States is sensitive to the perception that a visit could suggest that Washington is open to compromise on Georgia's future. She insists the United States will stand by its closest friend among the gradually democratizing former Soviet republics. The French-brokered cease-fire requires Russia to withdraw all of its combat forces from Georgia but gives Russian peacekeepers the express right to patrol beyond the disputed border region of South Ossetia that lies at the heart of the conflict, US officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the accord is not yet finalized and there are still US and Georgian concerns about the expanded patrol rights that need to be worked out. Sarkozy said, "If tomorrow, President Saakashvili signs these documents, then the withdrawal of the Russian troops can start." The concessions on Russian patrols outside South Ossetia were demanded by Russia, which accuses Georgian forces of attacking the peacekeepers and pro-Russian South Ossetians who live there. The US officials acknowledged the solution was not perfect but said the primary goal was to get Russian combat forces out of Georgia as quickly as possible. They said the US would accept the expanded patrol mandate only if it was limited, well-defined and temporary. Russian patrols outside South Ossetia proper would stop once a new international peacekeeping and monitoring force was in place, one official said, adding that the Russians would not be allowed to use the extra six-mile band "to impede legitimate Georgian movement." The cease-fire would also allow Russian peacekeepers to remain in Abkhazia, another, larger disputed province. Those forces would not be given the expanded patrol rights, officials said.