Andrew Osborn








Georgia Routed as Peace Bid Fails --- Russia's Moves 'Unacceptable,' Says Bush; Cease-Fire Efforts Stymied at U.N.

The Wall Street Journal, 12th August 2008 11:45

By Marc Champion and Andrew Osborn

TBILISI, Georgia -- Russian troops for the first time occupied towns outside Georgia's disputed territories on Monday, prompting fears of a full invasion and threatening a decisive split between Russia and the West.

Thousands of Georgian troops, as well as tanks and other vehicles, fled the town of Gori, just below the disputed territory of South Ossetia, late Monday afternoon in response to the Russian advance. By evening, Georgian officials said, Russian infantry had taken the town, less than 40 miles from the capital of Tbilisi.

The escalation in fighting, which came despite frantic efforts by European leaders and the U.S. to broker a cease-fire, underscored the new geopolitical realities accompanying Russia's rise as an energy superpower.

President George W. Bush issued a sharp rebuke to Russia on Monday, saying its actions were "unacceptable in the 21st century." He said there was evidence that Russia soon will begin bombing the civilian airport in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, which he said "would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict."

But U.S. efforts to press its case in the United Nations failed to gain traction. The U.N. Security Council has met five times since hostilities broke out Thursday, with little concrete result. On Monday, France led an effort, with U.S. support, to develop a resolution calling for an end to the fighting. The draft resolution shared among diplomats omitted specific reference to any Russian aggression -- something that the U.S. had been pushing for.

It seemed likely, however, that Russia would use its veto power as a permanent member of the council to block any U.N. action, hearkening back to an era when the world body was hobbled by Cold War posturing.

"I cannot see us accepting this French draft of the resolution," said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the U.N., on Monday evening. He noted that the draft contained "no reference to Georgian aggression, no reference to the atrocities we have seen."

Meanwhile, the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, after a conference call, issued a statement urging Russia to accept an immediate cease-fire. The G-7 is often expanded into the Group of Eight, which includes Russia, but Russia's foreign minister wasn't included in the call.

Russia and Georgia have been at loggerheads for years over Georgia's two separatist territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two broke away from Georgia after bloody conflicts in the early 1990s, as the former Soviet Union collapsed. Tensions have risen sharply this year. Last week, a series of skirmishes ended with Georgian forces attempting to seize the region on Thursday night, claiming that it was responding to a major South Ossetian attack.

Russia acknowledged that its troops moved out of the Russian-backed separatist territory of Abkhazia, located in the west of Georgia near the Black Sea, seizing Georgia's most modern military base, Senaki. U.N. officials told the Security Council that there were 2,000 Russian troops in Zugdidi, the main Georgian town outside the Abkhaz border, according to a statement Monday night by a U.K. diplomat. The Gori occupation couldn't be confirmed independently, and Russia denied its troops were in that city.

"We are in the process of the invasion, occupation and annihilation of an independent, democratic country," said Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, appealing in English for international help at a news conference. He said Moscow's goal was regime change.

Russia's foreign ministry and other officials insisted Moscow's goal wasn't to move on Tbilisi or to occupy the whole country, but to create a buffer zone that would prevent Georgian troops from firing into the country's two separatist territories.

"We don't want regime change in Tbilisi. Our goal is the peaceful settlement of the conflict," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov. "However, the fate of Saakashvili is in the hands of his own people."

Gori and Senaki lie on the main highway that runs across the country, from Tbilisi in the east to the Black Sea in the west. Holding them would give Russian troops the ability to control movement across the nation. Late Monday, Mr. Saakashvili said his country had effectively been cut in half.

"We no longer know the limits of the invading Russian army," said Kakha Lomaya, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council. The government said Georgian troops were pulling back to protect the capital.

Earlier Monday morning, Mr. Saakashvili signed a draft cease-fire agreement submitted to him by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Mr. Saakashvili said the draft calls on both sides to stop shooting, withdraw to their positions before the conflict, and then patrol the areas with a joint Russia-Georgia force of peacekeepers. Georgia declared a unilateral cease-fire at dawn on Sunday, but Russia continues to say it is not being observed and has refused to follow suit.

"We are in an extreme situation," said Georgia's Foreign Minister, Eka Tkeshalashvili, speaking by phone from the government's emergency-situation room. Earlier, she said she believed Russia was using the cease-fire situation as a delaying tactic, giving it time to achieve its military goals.

A reporter for The Wall Street Journal observed long columns of Russian forces heading along the main highway from North Ossetia in Russia proper into South Ossetia. The columns included at least 100 tanks, troop carriers, trucks, truck-mounted rocket launchers and long flatbed trucks carrying armor. The highway, cut into steep mountain gorges, was almost empty except for military convoys. At least three large military encampments, including command and communication posts, were also visible.

In the last eatery before the border with South Ossetia, Russian troops swigged cans of beer with volunteers keen to join the fight. "To victory," shouted one North Ossetian volunteer raising his vodka glass. "To finishing off Georgia!" Russian border guards said they weren't allowing anyone holding foreign passports to cross. In Vladikavkaz, refugees from South Ossetia said that Georgian forces had tried to wipe them from the face of the earth.

Russian officials showed increasing anger at the way the conflict and Russia's actions are being portrayed in the West -- with Georgia the victim and Russia the problem.

"The Russian army is trying to enforce peace, and to do that, we have to attack the Georgian military," which is shelling South Ossetian villages and towns from outside the region's nominal border, Sergei Ivanov, Russia's deputy prime minister, said on CNN. "We have to stop the genocide." He also indicated that Mr. Kouchner's cease-fire proposal falls short. Moscow is demanding that Georgia first sign agreements with leaders of the pro-Russian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both Mr. Ivanov and Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma, justified the Russian action with a comparison to NATO actions in Kosovo in 1999, when NATO aircraft bombed targets in Serbia proper, as far from the Kosovo battlefield as Belgrade.

Russian officials say between 1,000 and 2,000 civilians were killed in South Ossetia when Georgian forces launched their offensive Thursday night. They also alleged that civilians were deliberately burned, run over by tanks, or killed with hand grenades as they hid in their basements. None of those claims have been independently verified.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees said Monday it was organizing an airlift of supplies for some 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia who have fled north into Russia. It also said it was concerned that about 56,000 Georgians had been displaced from Gori. Thousands more have fled Zugdidi. On Monday, the U.N.'s refugee agency said civilians from the Georgia-held valley of Upper Abkhazia, where an estimated 2,000 people live, fled in buses as Russian-backed Abkhaz forces moved on the valley.

The High Commission said it still didn't know exactly how many people have been displaced in the conflict, and that it was relying on Russian and Georgian figures. The refugee agency has a permanent mission in Georgia, where it helps 275,000 displaced people, the vast majority of them Georgians who fled Abkhazia in the early 1990s, when Russian-backed Abkhaz forces drove Georgian troops out of the region. That conflict included atrocities on both sides.