WASHINGTON – President Bush on Friday accused Russia of “bullying and intimidation” in its harsh military treatment of Georgia, saying the people in the former Soviet republic have chosen freedom and “we will not cast them aside.”
Bush ratcheted up his rhetoric against Moscow as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Tbilisi, Georgia to pursue a diplomatic solution to the week-old crisis. Standing alongside Rice, pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili said he had signed a cease-fire agreement with Russia that protects Georgia’s interests despite concessions to Moscow.
Rice said all Russian troops “must leave immediately” and said she had been told that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will sign an identical pact.
The rush of events came as Bush began a two-week holiday from Washington. He left the White House after his remarks and flew to his ranch in Texas. Rice is to arrive there early Saturday to brief the president about the showdown between Moscow and Tbilisi over two separatist provinces in Georgia.
“Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected,” said Bush, speaking just outside the Oval Office.
With just five months remaining in his administration, Bush faces one of his biggest foreign policy challenges in dealing with a suddenly assertive Russia, along with unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deeply troubled search for peace in the Middle East. Bush’s influence is waning as the world turns its attention to the race to determine who will succeed him.
Bush said that Russia, with its air, sea and land attacks in Georgia, had damaged its relations with the United States and other Western powers.
“Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century,” the president said. “Only Russia can decide whether it will now put itself back on the path of responsible nations or continue to pursue a policy that promises only confrontation and isolation.
“To begin repairing relations with the United States, Europe and other nations and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must respect the freedom of its neighbors,” Bush said.
The White House has hedged on what consequences Russia might face. The administration is considering expelling Russia from international groups such as the Group of Eight industrialized nations. Questions also have been raised about U.S. cooperation with Russia in space.
“We need to see where this all ends up,” White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe said on Air Force One, flying to Texas with Bush. “We are hopeful that we can continue cooperation with the Russians – and that’s across the board. But a lot of this depends on Russia, and what Russia’s actions are in the near future. Right now their actions have been inconsistent … with the fundamental principles of a Europe whole, free and at peace. So cooperation on a wide range of issues going forward depends on the actions that Russia takes.”
Even before the crisis in Georgia, tensions between Washington and Moscow have been rising over disputes such as the independence of Kosovo, NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders and U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Moscow was infuriated when the United States and Poland reached a deal Thursday to install a U.S. missile defense base on Polish territory.
Still, Bush said, “The Cold War is over. The days of satellite states and spheres of influence are behind us.”
The United States has rushed humanitarian aid to Georgia, using U.S. military planes that put American forces in the midst of the showdown with Moscow.
“Moscow must honor its commitment to withdraw its invading forces from all Georgian territory,” Bush said.
The president said Americans might be perplexed why the United States had drawn a line in the sand in defense of Georgia, an impoverished country that is largely unknown on the world stage.
“In the years since its gained independence after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Georgia’s become a courageous democracy,” Bush said. “It’s people are making the tough choices that are required of free societies. Since the Rose Revolution in 2003, the Georgian people have held free elections, opened up their economy, and built the foundations of a successful democracy.”
Aligning itself firmly with Washington, Georgia sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush visited Georgia in a show of solidarity and promised that the United States would stand with the former Soviet republic.
“The people of Georgia have cast their lot with the free world, and we will not cast them aside,” the president pledged on Friday.
Bush on Friday called President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia to talk about the situation in Georgia.’
By TERENCE HUNT, AP White House Correspondent
Aug 15, 2008