Russia widens Georgia assault

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Times Staff Writers

Russian soldiers plunged into western Georgia on Monday to open a second front in the two countries’ 4-day-old war, provoking fresh worries about the Kremlin’s ultimate goal in the conflict.

In Washington, President Bush said it appeared Russia was planning to overthrow the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a strong U.S. ally. Using unusually blunt language, he demanded that Russia “reverse the course it appears to be on,” but did not say what the United States might do otherwise.

Saakashvili, in an interview with CNN, vowed to fight on alone “until the end” if necessary, but added, “My people feel let down by world democracies.”


The conflict threatens to drive a deeper wedge in a growing divide between Russia and the West. Although Georgia launched the initial attack on South Ossetia, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Georgia, and Russia says it is acting to protect the local population, the United States and Western European countries regard its response as wildly disproportionate.

The fighting lurched to a new level Monday when Russian troops stormed out of Abkhazia, a second secessionist region located in northwestern Georgia, to seize control of an army base near the town of Senaki inside Georgia proper. To the east, Georgia’s military struggled to regain ground lost to Russia in South Ossetia.

Georgian reservists in flip-flops, along with drawn, dirty soldiers, mingled on the outskirts of South Ossetia, taking cover under trees and overpasses while Russian warplanes hammered the roads.

Late in the day, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its troops had pulled back from the army base near Senaki after having “eliminated the threat” that Georgian troops posed to its soldiers in South Ossetia, the Interfax news agency reported. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was quoted as saying that Russia had completed the “bigger part of the operation to coerce the Georgian side to peace in South Ossetia.”

Earlier, Saakashvili said that Russian troops had in effect sliced his country in half by seizing control of the main east-west highway at the central Georgian city of Gori. Russia denied the claim, and the conflicting accounts could not be immediately resolved.

Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have essentially governed themselves since shortly after Georgia became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia has long deployed peacekeeping troops in both regions.


The long-simmering conflict erupted in earnest last week when Georgia launched a surprise operation to seize control of South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers and hundreds of civilians. Russia has bombed targets inside Georgia and imposed a sea blockade, moving its Black Sea fleet along the coast to prevent supplies and goods from entering the country.

The emergence of a second front near Abkhazia is another sign that Russia might be intending to continue punishing the smaller, poorer country, which lies between Russia and Turkey and has been dominated by Russia for most of its modern history. Georgia has strategic significance, in part because of its location on the route of a pipeline that carries oil from the Caspian Sea to the West.

Bush, in a televised statement from the White House Rose Garden soon after he returned home from the Olympic Games in Beijing, said he was “deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori and are threatening . . . Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. There’s evidence that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city.”

“If these reports are accurate,” he added, “these Russian actions would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia.”

Bush misspoke at one point, saying an effort appeared underway “to depose Russia’s duly elected government.” He meant Georgia’s government, repeating an assertion made earlier by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, denied that suggestion Monday as the U.N. Security Council met for its fifth day of emergency talks, which were closed to the public.


In a press briefing after the meeting, Khalilzad said that although Churkin responded to his repeated question, he did not go far enough.

“We hope Russia will join the broad consensus that is emerging, that this has gone on for too long,” Khalilzad said. He warned that the conflict would have “implications for the region, implications for the future relations of Russia with the United States, and the other international communities.”

Churkin told reporters that Russia was not likely to accept the current draft of a U.N. resolution.

“For us, the situation is not as simple as our American colleagues or our Georgian colleagues would like us or others to see,” Churkin said. “Our forces are continuing to take steps which would make sure that Georgian forces do not have the ability to invade South Ossetia again.”

Getting accurate information about the situation in Georgia was difficult at best. By late Monday night, it was not clear who was in control in Gori, a town of 50,000.

Telephone calls from Tbilisi did not go through. There were no signs of a Russian presence in Gori earlier in the day, and Georgian soldiers taking up positions in buildings said they were preparing to defend the city against Russian advances.


The Associated Press reported that terrified residents of Gori were fleeing after Georgian soldiers warned them that Russian tanks were approaching. The news agency also said Russian troops were in control of government buildings in the western Georgian city of Zugdidi, just south of Abkhazia.

Although Russia faces international condemnation, there is little evidence that Georgia will receive more than token military assistance from the West.

The United States flew Georgian troops deployed in Iraq back home on U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes. Beyond that, and keeping nearly 100 American military trainers in Tbilisi, the Bush administration has ruled out any military aid to Saakashvili.

Instead, senior administration officials said, the White House is pinning its near-term hopes on a cease-fire plan being presented by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Saakashvili signed the agreement during Kouchner’s stop in Tbilisi on Monday, and a senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations said Kouchner would present the plan to the Kremlin in Moscow today.

The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing the sensitive negotiations, said under the plan, both sides would agree to a cease-fire and nonaggression pact, followed by a return to positions before hostilities erupted last week.


But prospects for Russian agreement appeared slim, and U.S. officials received reports of panic in Tbilisi that Russian troops could attack the capital within hours. The U.S. sent envoys to both Tbilisi and Brussels, where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was to hold emergency talks today.

U.S. officials said they had repeatedly warned Saakashvili not to be provoked into attacking South Ossetia. But they also said Russia had massively overreacted, which they regarded as an indication that the Kremlin had been searching for a pretext to invade.

Though Russia is far from occupying all of Georgia, the senior U.S. official compared the attacks to the Soviet invasions of Afghanistan in 1979 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

“Their accounting is so distorted it recalls the phrase ‘the big lie,’ ” the official said of Moscow’s rationale for its military action.

“Words like ‘invasion’ should not be used lightly, but this is an invasion.”

The conflict has poured fresh animosity into already-strained relations between Moscow and Washington. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sharply criticized the United States on Monday for supporting Georgia.

“The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing,” Putin said on state television, “the attempt to turn white into black, black into white and to adeptly portray victims of aggression as aggressors and place the responsibility for the consequences of the aggression on the victims.”


The United States has displayed a “Cold War mentality,” Putin charged, supporting “Georgian rulers who used tanks to run over children and the elderly, who threw civilians into cellars and burned them.”


Stack reported from Tbilisi and Spiegel from Washington. Times staff writers Erika Hayasaki at the United Nations and Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles contributed to this report.



Conflict in the Caucasus at a glance

The combatants

Russia’s armed forces, together with its allies in the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are pitted against Georgia, a pro-Western country on the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia that was ruled by Moscow before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia, with a population of 141 million, has a 1.1- million-strong military; Georgia, with 4.6 million people, has 37,000 in its armed forces.

The latest fighting

Georgia launched an assault last week on South Ossetia, which fought for independence from Georgia in the 1990s, when Abkhazia did the same. Russia responded by sending troops into the breakaway regions and into some areas of Georgia proper. It has launched airstrikes on some Georgian cities.

Georgian leaders say their assault last week on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, came in response to separatist violations of a Georgian-declared cease-fire and to the recent arrival in the enclave of Russian troops.


On Monday, Moscow opened a western front in the conflict when its troops streamed out of Abkhazia to seize an army base in Georgia proper, near the town of Senaki.

The history

Russia has long viewed itself as protecting South Ossetia and Abkhazia in their drive to separate from Georgia. Both republics have close ties to Moscow, which has been angered by U.S.-backed Georgia’s bid to join NATO.

In 1989, South Ossetia declared its autonomy from Georgia, then known as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, setting off three months of fighting. Another conflict began in December 1990 and lasted until 1992, when Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian leaders signed an armistice and Russian troops began patrolling the border. The same year, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia, sparking a war that ended in 1994 with a treaty between Russia and Georgia, with Russian troops patrolling that border as well.

The stakes

Russia and the United States compete for influence in strategically vital regions of the former Soviet Union. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a U.S. ally, and he has sent troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration has strongly supported Georgia’s push to join NATO. Russia fears that its former satellites will look to the West, damaging Moscow’s influence in the region. Another concern is energy: Georgia is a major conduit for oil flowing from Central Asia to the West.

Source: Times Staff and Wire Reports


Latest developments

1. Russian troops entered Senaki and Zugdidi, Georgia. Moscow said its forces later left Senaki, and it denied Georgia’s report that they entered Poti, an oil and cargo port on the Black Sea.

2. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russia captured the center of the town of Gori. Russia’s Defense Ministry denied that it took Gori,


and said it did not intend to advance on Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

3. Georgian helicopter gunships were seen bombing targets near Tskhinvali, capital of breakaway South Ossetia.

Also, President Bush demanded that Russia reverse its apparent attempt to overthrow the Georgian government. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Georgia was the aggressor.