Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Russia Widens Attacks on Georgia --- Worries Mount About Kremlin Goals as Calls for Cease-Fire Are Spurned; a U.N. Clash

The Wall Street Journal, 11th August 2008 11:46

By Marc Champion in Tbilisi, Georgia, Andrew Osborn in Moscow and John D. McKinnon in Washington

Russia broadened its air, land and sea campaign against neighboring Georgia, as Tbilisi pulled back its own battered troops and cease-fire efforts failed.

Moscow's massive assault -- its biggest use of force outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- marked a watershed in the Kremlin's increasingly assertive foreign policy. Underscoring the limits of U.S. and European leverage, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed appeals from Western leaders to curtail the actions in Georgia.

As the fighting spreads to Abkhazia on Georgia's Black Sea coast, some Western diplomats are worrying aloud over the regional implications of a new order in which Russia reserves the right to use force to impose its will on neighboring states. In a Sunday night interview, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili characterized the fighting as being "about saving Georgia as a nation." He called Moscow's actions a historic mistake.

President George W. Bush has met repeatedly in the past with Mr. Saakashvili, one of Washington's staunchest allies. Vice President Dick Cheney called Mr. Saakashvili Sunday to express support and told him "Russian aggression must not go unanswered," the vice president's office said in a statement. However, this weekend senior Bush administration officials stressed that the U.S. is focused on diplomacy to try to bring an end to the hostilities. The officials also at times described the Russian offensive as a regional crisis that wouldn't require outside intervention.

Russia's aerial bombing campaign continued in Georgia late Sunday, and Russia's Black Sea fleet -- which is imposing a blockade on Georgia's main port -- said it had sunk a Georgian missile boat that sought to attack Russian vessels. While fighting in the restive South Ossetia region seemed to cool somewhat, Georgian officials said the conflict was expanding to Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed separatist enclave. There, Georgian officials said Russian ships had landed troops and heavy armor.

Georgian officials also said Sunday that Russia was shelling near Gori, suggesting Russian ground forces for the first time were taking the conflict into Georgia proper -- Gori is just an hour's drive from the capital, Tbilisi. The shelling couldn't be independently verified.

East-West tensions remained at some of the highest levels since the end of the Cold War. In a testy exchange at the United Nations in New York, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Russia's foreign minister indicated to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday that one of Russia's aims was to depose Mr. Saakashvili. "This raises serious questions about Russia's objectives," Mr. Khalilzad told the U.N. Security Council. "This is completely unacceptable."

Later, at a news conference in Moscow, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said his comments were misinterpreted and that he wasn't demanding Mr. Saakashvili's removal. But, he said, "A man who issued orders to commit war crimes which resulted in thousands of deaths of peaceful civilians cannot be viewed by Russia as a partner."

President Bush spoke in person with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Beijing Olympics, urging him to halt the attacks. People familiar with the conversations described them as heated.

Nestled on the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey, Georgia is a major transit point for oil and gas from the Caspian region. Russian attacks hit near an oil pipeline that carries crude oil to Western markets. The pipeline wasn't damaged by the bombs, although pumping has been suspended due to a fire unrelated to the hostilities.

U.S. and European friendship toward Georgia is considered critical to efforts to break Russia's control over export channels for the rich oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea region.

Russian officials blame Georgia for starting the conflict last week with a Thursday attack on South Ossetia, a Russian-backed separatist enclave within Georgia's borders. Messrs. Putin and Medvedev accuse Georgia of waging "genocide" against the Ossetian people, a charge Georgia and its Western allies dismiss. Mr. Medvedev said in a statement that Russia would send 150 investigators to examine evidence of the crimes with a view to prosecution of those responsible.

Georgia's President Saakashvili blames Russia for the clash. In the Sunday interview, he said Georgia's Thursday military actions were a response to a heavy Russian assault near South Ossetia -- and the news that 150 Russian tanks were approaching the region.

"Our military said the only option we had was to use long-range artillery" and move up to destroy a key bridge near the city of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital, Mr. Saakashvili said.

Western officials have denounced Moscow's military response as disproportionate, since they say it has included ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and strikes on airports and other infrastructure far from the conflict zone.

"Their operations are being conducted far, far from the initial zone of conflict," said a senior U.S. official. "Why this is a legitimate use of force is beyond me."

Moscow's defiance of U.S. and European calls for peace highlights the West's inability to protect Georgia and other fledgling allies that have emerged from the former Soviet Union. The Bush administration has pressed for Georgia to join Western nations as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, extending the U.S.-led alliance far into Russia's sphere of influence. Moscow, seeking to enhance its own place on the global stage, staunchly opposes NATO expansion onto its turf.

For Europe -- which depends on Russia for a quarter of its gas supplies -- standing up to the Kremlin is tricky. Washington, meantime, is eager to win Moscow's cooperation on global issues like stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Georgian officials and Western diplomats alike see the attack as by far Moscow's most aggressive signal that it will fight Western influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The U.S.-educated Mr. Saakashvili had angered Moscow with his pro-Western course, particularly his drive to join NATO. Ukraine's Western-oriented government has also found itself on Moscow's bad side.

Until the latest attack, Moscow had limited its efforts to pressure Georgia and Ukraine to periodic economic embargoes, including brief shutoffs of Russian natural-gas supplies. Russia was seen as unready for open confrontation, given its weak military and an once-struggling economy. Now, however, enriched by hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from oil and natural-gas exports, the Kremlin is reasserting what it calls Russia's natural role in world politics, not the weakened one it played through the 1990s.

Other former Soviet states are watching the Georgia crisis with a careful eye. Russian officials have in recent months stepped up their rhetoric about possible claims on Crimea, a historically Russian region that is now Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian officials said they might block Russia's Black Sea fleet from returning to its leased naval base in Crimea, after Russian ships began a blockade of Georgia's ports.

"This is about the whole of the ex-Soviet Union. Georgia is just the showcase," said Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia's envoy in the separatist conflicts, in an interview. "Next comes Crimea," he said.

Several Western diplomats and analysts believe Russia is taking cues from NATO's 1999 bombing of Serbia -- an action that Russia deeply opposed, but was powerless to stop. That bombing was in part an effort to undermine Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. "Russia wants to serve up to the West a textbook copy of what the West did to Serbia, but of course it's a ghastly parody," said Alex Rondos, a former Greek diplomat who was involved in the Yugoslav case.

Russian officials insist their sole goal is to establish control over Georgia's two separatist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The territories are protected by Russian peacekeepers and broke away from Georgia with the help of Russian volunteers and covert military support, including air cover in Abkhazia, in the early 1990s. In both cases, the conflicts followed attempts by Georgia to end the separatists' ambitions by force.

Kremlin-connected analysts said Georgia's attack on South Ossetia was designed to draw Russia into a conflict. "It's very obvious that this is a political provocation," said Sergei Karaganov, director of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a government advisory group that includes senior Kremlin officials. "I do not rule out the possibility that somewhere, at some level of government, their actions were approved from the U.S.," he said.

Bush administration officials said they were taken by surprise when Georgia launched its attack last week. "We've been quite clear: If you engage in a serious armed conflict with Russia, you can't prevail," said a senior U.S. official who is working on the Georgia issue.

As Russian troops and hardware poured into South Ossetia, Georgian officials reported heavy fighting and casualties Sunday morning and said their troops were pulling out of the entire region.

Georgia was withdrawing its troops "as part of a very conscious decision by the Georgian government to end this spiral of violence," said Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili in a phone interview. Georgia's national security adviser said Sunday afternoon that troops had taken up positions just outside South Ossetia's internal border with Georgia.

Russian military commanders disputed that Georgian troops had in fact withdrawn. However, by late afternoon television footage showed Russian troops in charge of border posts.

Kakha Lomaya, head of Georgia's Security Council, said in a conference call with reporters that Georgia had passed a message to Moscow via U.S. Secretary of State Rice asking for a cease-fire, in which both Georgian and Russia troops withdraw. As of Sunday night, Georgian officials said they had received no response.

Mr. Lomaya said Russian-backed separatist forces in Abkhazia were beginning an assault on Georgian-held Upper Abkhazia, an isolated mountain valley. Mr. Lomaya also said seven vessels from Russia's Black Sea fleet had deposited heavy equipment and troops at the port of Ocamcire in Abkhazia. It wasn't possible to independently verify that information Sunday.

Mr. Saakashvili drove across the country to Zugdidi, a town just south of Abkhazia, Sunday morning to reassure the population. He said in a later television interview that Russian aircraft had buzzed the road and dropped bombs nearby.