President Bush sent American troops to Georgia on Wednesday to oversee a “vigorous and ongoing” humanitarian mission, in a direct challenge to Russia's display of military dominance over the region.
His action came after Russian soldiers moved into two strategic Georgian cities in what he and Georgian officials called a violation of the cease-fire Russia signed the day before.
Bush demanded that Russia abide by the cease-fire and withdraw its forces or risk its place in “the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century.” It was his strongest warning yet of potential retaliation against Russia over the conflict.
The decision to send the American military, even on a humanitarian mission, deepened the United States' commitment to Georgia and America's allies in the former Soviet sphere, just as Russia has been determined to reassert its control in the area.
On a day when the White House evoked emotional memories of the Cold War, a senior Pentagon official said the relief effort was intended “to show to Russia that we can come to the aid of a European ally, and that we can do it at will, whenever and wherever we want.” At a minimum, American forces in Georgia will test Russia's pledge to allow relief supplies into the country; they could also deter further Russian attacks, though at the risk of a potential military confrontation.
“We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit,” Bush said. “We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia, and we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country.”
In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has sharply criticized what he called a failure of the West to support his country, declared the relief operation a “turning point” in the conflict, which began on Thursday when Georgian forces tried to establish control in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, only to be routed by the Russians.
“We were unhappy with the initial actions of the American officials … but this one was very strong,” he said in a telephone interview, moments after Bush's statement in Washington.
Saakashvili interpreted the aid operation as a decision to defend Georgia's ports and airports, though Bush administration and Pentagon officials quickly made it clear that would not be the case.
A senior administration official said, “We won't be protecting the airport or seaport, but we'll certainly protect our assets if we need to.”
After two days of frenetic discussions after Bush's return from Beijing on Monday, he spoke in the Rose Garden of the White House, flanked by his secretaries of state and defense, Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates. Bush announced that Rice would fly to France to support its mediation efforts and then to Georgia “to continue our efforts to rally the free world in the defense of a free Georgia.”
State Department officials said there were no plans for Rice to go to Moscow, a fact noted by Russian officials.
Bush's remarks, like the military operation he ordered, reflected a growing apprehension within the White House over Russia's offensive, as well as mounting frustration that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia, whom Bush often calls a friend, was unmoved by appeals for moderation.
Bush, who had remained at the Olympics while the conflict erupted over the weekend, postponed a planned trip to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, which was to have begun on Thursday.
The first relief aircraft carrying medical supplies and materials for shelter for thousands displaced by the fighting, arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, on Wednesday; a second is due today. Bush said the relief mission would include naval and air forces.
Pentagon officials said that a decision on sending in the Navy had not been made and that it was complicated by logistics and the de facto blockade of Georgia by Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
Rice called her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and informed him about the relief operation. The presence of U.S. troops to help the aid mission would also allow the United States to monitor whether Russia was honoring the cease-fire, brokered by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
The arrival of American troops in the same region as Russian ones evoked the uncertainty of a similar moment in Kosovo in 1999, when Russian peacekeepers rushed to beat NATO troops to the capital, Pristina.
At a news conference at the State Department, Rice evoked some of the darkest memories of the Cold War, though she stopped well short of promises of direct military support.
“This is not 1968, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can invade its neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it,” she said. “Things have changed.”
She and Bush gave credence to Georgia's accusations that Russian forces continued to operate in violation of the cease-fire. Russia insisted that all of its operations were permitted under the agreement.