U.S. looks for safe way to penalize Russia

The U.S. on Sunday accused Russia of stalling its military pullback in Georgia, but the Bush administration is not rushing to take action against Moscow.

The White House is struggling to figure out the best way to penalize Russia. It doesn't want to deeply damage existing cooperation on many fronts or discourage Moscow from further integrating itself into global economic and political institutions. At the same time, U.S. officials say Russia can't be allowed to get away with invading its neighbor.

“There's no doubt there will be further consequences,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who briefed President Bush on the fast-changing crisis over the weekend at his Texas ranch.

She returned to Washington on Sunday and is flying to Brussels, Belgium, today to talk with NATO allies about what message the West should send to Russia.

Rice then flies to Warsaw, Poland, where she will sign an agreement with Poland to establish of a missile interceptor site there. Moscow has protested the U.S. plans for such a base so close to its borders.

Russia can't use “disproportionate force” against Georgia and still be welcomed into the halls of international institutions, Rice said.

“It's not going to happen that way,” she said. “Russia will pay a price.”

Neither Rice nor Defense Secretary Robert Gates would be specific about what punitive actions the U.S. or the international community might take.

“We're going to take our time and assess what further consequences there should be to the relationship,” Rice said.

The United States wants to take a tough stance against Russia, but much is at stake.

“The facts are that the United States has to work with Russia on Iran, on nuclear problems of proliferation, on a whole raft of trade issues at a time in which the United States has a huge domestic deficit,” said Sen. Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Holding open the prospect of taking steps against Russia gives the U.S. leverage in pushing Russia to withdraw from Georgia. But nothing is expected to happen fast, and the U.S. doesn't want to turn the conflict into a fight between the former Cold War rivals.