Russian forces broadened their crushing offensive against Georgia on Monday, and Georgian officials feared the worst – that the Russian invasion would mean the end of their country's independence.
Russian troops were reported in control of Georgia's main east-west highway outside the central Georgian town of Gori, had taken control of Georgia's main port at Poti, seized a Georgian military base in the west and had complete dominion of the skies, from which they bombed and strafed retreating Georgian troops at will.
In Washington, President Bush warned of a “dramatic and brutal escalation” by Russia and said it appeared Russia might be trying to oust Georgia's president, a former Washington lawyer who is a staunch U.S. ally.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden immediately after flying home from China, Bush said it appeared Russia was moving beyond the original “zone of conflict” and might soon bomb the civilian airport and attack Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in a nationally broadcast address, said that he'd offered a cease-fire but had been rebuffed.
Russian officials said that Georgian forces were still fighting, however, and a Russian defense spokesman said Saakashvili's offer wasn't “worth a penny.”
Col. Gen. Anatoly Nagovitsin, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, reiterated his government's bottom line: Russia won't cease fighting until Georgia not only pulls out of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia but also signs an agreement never to pursue force against them again.
The United States and Europe pressed for a cease-fire, without effect.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conferred by telephone with foreign ministers from the world's largest economic powers, who also urged Russia to accept a cease-fire and agree to international mediation.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chafed at the criticism, likening Russia's moves against Georgia to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and using the American presence there as justification for Russian calls for the overthrow of the U.S.-allied Georgian government.
“Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shiite villages,” Putin said from Moscow. “And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed 10 Ossetian villages at once, who ran over elderly people and children with tanks, who burned civilians alive in their sheds – these leaders must be taken under protection.”
He also criticized the United States for flying 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq aboard U.S. military aircraft. “It is a shame that some of our partners are not helping us but, essentially, are hindering us,” Putin said.
What began as a Georgian offensive last Thursday night to wrest control of the Russian-backed South Ossetian region by Monday had grown into a punishing display of Russia's military superiority.
“We have never been and will never be a passive observer in the region,” said Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, according to state newswires.
The Russian government accused the Georgian military of a barbaric campaign against separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, saying that as many as 2,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting. The Georgians put the numbers much lower.
On Sunday, Russian tanks and jets pounded Georgian troops until they evacuated Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital. On Monday, Russian tanks moved to the edge of South Ossetia and toward Georgian-controlled villages there, according to Georgian troops who witnessed the fighting.
Russian aircraft hit the city of Gori, the home of a Georgian military base that sits between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi. On Monday, a few buildings, apparently civilian targets, were blasted with holes and scorched by fire.
Early today, Elene Agladze, who works in the office of the Georgian director of national security, said Russian troops were reported on the outskirts of Gori, though she said the reports had not been officially confirmed.