Fighting may spark a new U.S. policy battle over Russia

Times Staff Writers

Other than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, few foreign policy initiatives have gotten more diplomatic attention from the Bush administration recently than thawing its increasingly chilly relationship with Russia.

Twice over the last 10 months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have been sent on joint missions to convince the Kremlin that it should cooperate on a variety of fronts, including missile defense and nuclear proliferation.

But the conflict in Georgia this week has left efforts to engage Russia in disarray, and there are increasing signs that administration hard-liners are using the crisis to reassert their view that Moscow should be isolated.


Vice President Dick Cheney’s declaration Saturday that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered” was seen by some experts as the first salvo of what could be a new battle over administration policy.

Some conservatives believe the administration has not been tough enough with Russia. Frederick W. Kagan, a neoconservative scholar who has advised the Bush administration, praised Cheney’s comment and faulted President Bush for failing to outline to the Russians the consequences of pressing their assault.

Kagan and others are marshaling arguments for the policy deliberations already underway over how to deal with the aftermath of the Georgian crisis.

Some Bush administration officials are likely to press for kicking Russia out of the Group of 8, which includes the seven major industrial countries and Russia, and blocking its admission to the World Trade Organization. The U.S. also could pledge to rebuild the Georgian military and cut Russia out of discussion over the missile defense system in Europe.

A tougher stance would represent a significant shift for the administration, which recast its approach to Russia in Bush’s second term. During Rice and Gates’ March visit to Moscow, they carried a personal letter from Bush to then-President Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, that tried to strike a conciliatory tone on a variety of issues.

That was a contrast from the opening months of the Bush administration, when advisors pushed the White House to unilaterally pull out of arms control treaties and propose American military bases in former Warsaw Pact countries.


“There has always seemed to be a split within the government, so a consistent policy for dealing with Russia has been absent,” said James J. Townsend Jr., who handled European relations at the Pentagon before joining the Atlantic Council of the United States think tank last year. “In the first term, there were a lot of hard-liners on Russia who did not look kindly on cooperation.”

Kagan said the U.S. should announce that it will provide military aid to Georgia.

“It would be great if we were to announce we are going to help the Georgians rebuild as part of the compensation for their efforts in Iraq,” Kagan said.

Other regional experts believe the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should enforce a no-fly zone over Georgia to put a halt to Russian air attacks.

“At what point does the West do something meaningful? Having the president backslapping with Putin at the Olympics is not a serious attempt to deal with the problem,” said David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The Georgians, who took us at our word when we talked about a partnership, have got to be wondering what Bush is all about.”

Pentagon officials have dismissed calls for NATO combat air patrols, but Phillips said that calculation could change if Russia began strafing Tbilisi.

“The last thing Russia wants is a war with the West. If they came eye to eye with NATO warplanes, they would retreat,” Phillips said.


Administration critics said that the fight within the White House over Russia policy has been more than just a bureaucratic battle; they argue that it led to mixed messages being sent to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili about the willingness of the U.S. to support Georgia in a war with Russia.

Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who worked to expand the alliance’s relationship with Russia in the 1990s, said that although Moscow may have provoked Georgia into a fight, the fact that Saakashvili took the bait by moving his forces into South Ossetia last week is a clear sign that the Georgian president believed he would have Washington’s backing.

“Saakashvili thought he had room to play,” Hunter said. “I would have rather the Russians hadn’t responded, but Saakashvili sure . . . did it, and he did it in the mistaken belief, I believe, that he had friends in [the Bush administration’s] court.”

One U.S. government analyst who works on Russian issues noted that Rice was in Tbilisi last month promising NATO membership for Georgia, telling Saakashvili publicly, “We always fight for our friends.”

A senior U.S. official involved in Russia policymaking vehemently denied that the administration had sent mixed messages, arguing that although Saakashvili had long received strong support from the most senior American officials, Georgians were warned not to engage Russia militarily.

“We have consistently, and on Thursday also, urged the Georgians not to move their forces in. We were unambiguous about it,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing private talks with the Georgians. “Saakashvili had always told us he could not stand by while Georgian villages were being shelled, and we always knew this was a point of pressure. We always told him that he should not give in to the kind of provocations we knew the Russians were capable of.”


But Phillips said he believed that even if the State Department was warning the Russians, the Georgians heard a different message.

“I think the State Department was assiduous in urging restraint, and Saakashvili’s buddies in the White House and Office of the Vice President kept egging him on,” Phillips said.

The administration’s mistake, he said, was that the close relationship between senior administration officials and Saakashvili led the Georgian president headlong into the Russian army.

“The Bush administration was far too chummy with Saakashvili,” Phillips said. “That allowed him to misinterpret the degree and depth of our support.”


Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.