George Bush squares up to Vladimir Putin over GeorgiaTom Baldwin in Washington
President Bush dispatched US military hardware to the heart of the Caucasus yesterday and warned Russia that it could be frozen out of international bodies as punishment for its aggression in Georgia.
In his toughest criticism of Russia since becoming President, Mr Bush accused it of breaching the provisional ceasefire agreed with Georgia only 24 hours earlier.
He cited intelligence showing that Russian troops had again taken the town of Gori and could threaten the capital, Tbilisi. He insisted that Moscow respect the former Soviet republic’s territorial integrity. There were also reports of Russian-backed militia in South Ossetia looting ethnic Georgian villages and killing inhabitants.
The Russia-Georgia grudge match
Simon Sebag Montefiore says retaking Ossetia is just one part of Russia's campaign to reassert dominance and defy the US
Echo of Cold War as US flexes its muscles
“To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis,” Mr Bush said.
The US is in talks with allies about whether to suspend Russia’s membership of the G8 club of industrialised nations. There is a growing clamour to block Russia’s membership of the World Trade Organisation and to rescind an invitation for it to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Mr Bush’s statement, delivered in stern tones outside the White House, was stronger than his cautious comments last week, which reflected the State Department’s unhappiness with Georgia’s use of force against pro-Russian separatist rebels in South Ossetia.
Although direct military intervention is not being considered, Pentagon sources have hinted that a limited number of troops could be deployed to support what Mr Bush described as a vigorous and continuing humanitarian mission headed by the US military.
The first US air force transport aircraft arrived last night, and the navy was heading to the Black Sea – which is controlled by Russian warships – to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies direct to Georgian ports. “We expect Russia to honour its commitment to let in all forms of humanitarian assistance,” Mr Bush said.
President Saakashvili of Georgia seized on the announcement to say that Tbilisi airport and Poti port would be placed under US military control, a claim the Pentagon swiftly denied.
Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, flew to France last night to meet President Sarkozy before heading to Tbilisi. Sergei Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, said that the US must choose between supporting the Georgian leadership and maintaining a partnership with Russia on international issues. Dr Rice said: “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbours, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed.”
The Georgian President had accused the US of squandering its support among former Soviet republics. Diplomats say that they have little leverage against a Kremlin in which the strings are still being pulled by Vladimir Putin, the former President. The most likely sanctions are those that would damage Russia’s prestige.
Mr Bush said: “Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century. Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions.”
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said that the EU should reassess plans for a partnership agreement with Russia. For the time being, measures being taken have been limited to a US boycott of a Nato meeting with a Russian delegation and the likely cancellation of a joint naval exercise.