Bush Raises the Heat in Georgia Crisis

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Ron Edmonds / AP

President George W. Bush, flanked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, left, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, makes a statement on the conflict between Georgia and Russia

President George W. Bush jacked up Washington's response to the crisis in Georgia this morning, declaring "solidarity with the Georgian people" after a series of meetings with intelligence and national security advisers in which reports of continuing movements by Russian forces in the region raised fears that Moscow might still be pursuing military ambitions in the country. The sum effect of Bush's statements was to turn what had been a cautious approach from Washington into an aggressive one, and it raised the possibility of a sharper confrontation with Moscow.

Bush raised the rhetorical temperature several degrees in his statement. "Russia's ongoing action raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region," Bush said in a Rose Garden announcement Wednesday. In a veiled threat of isolating Russia from the World Trade Organization, the G-8 and the NATO consultative relationship it has held for more than a decade, Bush said Russia was "putting its aspirations [of international integration] at risk."

More tellingly, Bush announced the first series of tangible steps from the Administration since the crisis began. He said he was dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Paris and Tbilisi to show support for French diplomatic efforts and Georgian resistance to the Russian invasion. He also said he was ordering Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to begin air and sea delivery of humanitarian supplies by the U.S. military.

The announcement represents a fairly aggressive, two-pronged response to Russia's failure to comply with the cease-fire it signed. On the one hand, Bush's rhetoric was more one-sided in support of Georgia than it has been, and he indicated that Rice would reinforce that support. In Georgia, he said, Rice "will personally convey America's unwavering support for Georgia's democratic government. On this trip she will continue our efforts to rally the free world in the defense of a free Georgia."

Equally forceful, and potentially more confrontational, is the humanitarian mission. Bush noted that Russian armored vehicles were blocking access to the port city of Poti and that Russia was blowing up Georgian vessels. Bush said Gates would launch a "vigorous and ongoing" humanitarian mission by both air and sea. "In the days ahead we will use U.S. aircraft as well as naval forces to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies," he said.

An attempt by U.S. naval vessels to deliver humanitarian aid to Poti could sharpen Washington's confrontation with Moscow and put the U.S. in the middle of the crisis. It is not clear yet where the U.S. will be delivering the aid, nor whether any Russian naval forces, rather than just Armored Personnel Carriers, are involved in blocking Poti. But the comparison to the Berlin airlift is unavoidable, and both rhetorically and practically the Administration has clearly decided to go in that direction. "We fully expect Russia to keep its word to provide free access to humanitarian assistance and allow any of our assistance to arrive either by military or commercial means by air, land and sea," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

Bush made the announcement after a morning of "rolling meetings" with national security advisers. These started at 8 a.m. with his daily intelligence briefing, which became a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC). Bush spoke to French President Nicolas Sarkozy at 10 a.m., then made his announcement in the Rose Garden at 11:10 a.m. The plan had been for Rice to announce the humanitarian mission at 10:30 a.m. But Bush and his advisers apparently decided that the President himself needed to deliver a more forceful American response to Russia. "The situation on the ground changed," NSC spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.