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U.S. Issues Strong Warning to Russia Over Georgian Conflict

August 11, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President Bush warned Monday it appeared that Russian forces may be seeking to depose the elected Georgian government as Moscow sent forces deeper into unstable region. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad discusses the American position on the crisis.
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GWEN IFILL: The war between Russia and Georgia. We start with a report from Georgia. The correspondent is Nick Paton Walsh of Independent Television News.

NICK PATON WALSH, ITV News Correspondent: This morning they were closing in. This is Shindisi in Georgia, three miles from South Ossetia. But up this road, Georgian troops told us, is no-man’s land, where the Russians will shell or shoot you.

The road back to the Georgian town of Gori was earlier today, lined with nervous Georgian troops awaiting a Russian march on the town where Stalin was born, edgy, determined.

GEORGIAN SOLDIER (through translator): They will bomb, but they will not put Georgia on its knees and make it beg for mercy. Tell the whole world we’ll stand until the end.

NICK PATON WALSH: He’d recently served with the coalition in Baquba, Iraq. This small army, trained by NATO and braced for a broader Russian invasion.

Earlier, Georgian tanks drove through Gori in a show of force, defiant and angry. Unbowed, they let us into a tank base Russian air strikes hit two days ago. The barracks here suffered a direct hit.

He’s pointing on the ground to the blood of his colleagues. And he says that the bodies were laying all around here after the strike, 13 of them.

These men still fighting, but now loading food supplies for their forward positions. And they show me the fragments of one of the missiles that hit the base. Grief and fury at the 21 dead here.

Two days ago, killed.

They also hit these flats next door. Several were killed here on Saturday. But this morning, Russian jets hit it again. Questions now over Russian motives: Did they really make the same mistake of hitting civilians twice?

Gori is so tense that its military hospital has evacuated its patients. They fear they’re a target, and they’re bracing themselves for more wounded; 1,500 injured soldiers have been brought here since Friday. I saw seven bodies in the morgue, and they’ve seen a total of 40 dead here.

LEVAN SHANIDZE, Volunteer: Everyone knows that Russia is clearly much stronger. And Russia didn’t have to prove that to anyone in the world, but it’s about a war between us and Russians. And they just want us to knee down, but I don’t think that we’re going to do it, even if it takes our lives.

And this is pretty much what happened here: A lot of people died just because they didn’t want to knee down and kneel to Russian aggression.

NICK PATON WALSH: Readying themselves, it seemed this morning, for many, more losses.

GWEN IFILL: The U.S. has responded to Russia’s incursion into Georgia by seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire.

Debate over the matter sparked a testy exchange at the U.N. yesterday between the U.S. and Russian ambassadors.

Earlier this evening, Margaret Warner spoke with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Debate goes to Security Council

Zalmay Khalilzad
U.S. Ambassador to the UN
We have got a draft resolution that several members of the council now have agreed to and will be circulated this evening that will call for support for Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty and unconditional cease-fire.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, welcome. What are you trying to accomplish in this resolution that you're pushing at the U.N.?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: First, Margaret, the effort in the U.N. is one of the means, diplomatic means, that we are working on in order to get Russians to stop the violence and to accept the cease-fire, which the Georgian government has agreed to.

We have had today a discussion among the G-7 foreign ministers. And they've agreed to support a cease-fire and a return to status quo ante.

There has been engagement with European leaders, particularly the French and Finnish ministers, who are in the region to get the Russians to agree to a cease-fire.

And in the United Nations, we have got a resolution, a draft resolution that several members of the council now have agreed to and will be circulated this evening. That will call for support for Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty and unconditional cease-fire.

Those are the two principal elements of that resolution.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, would this be a cease-fire in place, with Russian troops continuing to occupy parts of Georgia proper?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: No. The resolution also calls for a return to status quo ante of August the 6th and for a withdrawal of foreign forces. So it does not allow for a cease-fire in place. It calls for a cessation of hostility and a return to status quo ante of August the 6th.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, are you actually negotiating with your Russian counterpart over this? Are you seeking something, hoping Russian will agree? Or is this setting up essentially a Russian veto?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it's up to Russia at present unless there is a change in Russian policy. The Russians are likely not to go along. We want, of course, Russia to support the cessation of hostility and other elements that we discussed.

We are hoping for a change in attitude. The vote will not take place today. There will be time after we table the resolution for discussion inside the council.

But as things stand right now, if we go to a vote in the next few days, the Russians are likely to veto it.

Russian intentions unknown

Zalmay Khalilzad
U.S. Ambassador to the UN
I think Russia has legitimate interests, obviously, in its neighborhood. But this is no way -- the means they are using, the persistence in the attacks -- is no way to pursue those legitimate interests.

MARGARET WARNER: So how do you read the Russians right now? I mean, what do you think their ultimate objective is?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: That's one of the big questions, Margaret. What is it that they are after? Is it limited to South Ossetia? Or is it that they want to change government in Tbilisi, as Minister Lavrov mentioned to Secretary Rice yesterday?

MARGARET WARNER: The foreign minister.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Do they want -- the foreign minister, yes. Is their goal to send a message to the entire region of countries around Russia that you better do what Russia wants, not to go against anything that might upset Russia, not to seek NATO membership, not to join Western institutions.

Is it a message more broader than that, about what's happening inside Russia and their message in terms of relations with the rest of the world? That's unclear. And that's one of the disturbing things that Russia is not making it clear what its objectives are.

And, certainly, we want this thing to end. We think the fighting has gone on too long. And it's disproportionate use of forces. Brutal means have been used. We condemn it in the strongest terms.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you read Russian behavior, given the fact that Russia moved out beyond South Ossetia into Abkhazia and into Georgia itself? I mean, in answer to your own question, what is your assessment?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: My assessment is that, as time goes on, as the fighting continues, one cannot but assume that the goals are more ambitious than limited to South Ossetia. The question really now is, how much more?

And I think this is an issue that will affect Russia's relations -- what ultimately happens in Georgia and what Russians do there will affect Russia's relations with us, with Europe, with the rest of the international community.

And the ultimate effect would be not only in terms of what they do, but also what the ultimate response on our part is, in terms of what happens in Georgia and what we do to shape that the right lessons are learned from what has happened.

I think Russia has legitimate interests, obviously, in its neighborhood. But this is no way -- the means they are using, the persistence in the attacks -- is no way to pursue those legitimate interests.

U.S. options are limited

Zalmay Khalilzad
U.S. Ambassador to the UN
The longer this goes on, the longer Russia behaves in the way it has behaved in the last several days, the more negative the impact will be...

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Vice President Cheney said yesterday that, quote, "This aggression must not go unanswered." But realistically what can the U.S. and the West actually do, other than pursue this diplomatic track?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, of course, there is the diplomatic track, and that's the immediate objective, which is a cease-fire.

There is the humanitarian assistance, the rebuilding of Georgia and Georgia's institutions that have been destroyed.

And then the longer term effort of, what do we do that Russia does not do the same thing to other smaller countries in their neighborhood? And we will have to think hard about the steps that are necessary that, as I said before, the right lessons are learned, and that there is not a belief that takes hold there that Russia did what it is doing and got away with it, therefore intimidating countries in its neighborhood and re-establishing, if you like, a sphere of influence in the area.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that the United States and Europe should make Russia pay some price? I mean, I don't know, kicking it out of the G-8 or disbanding the NATO-Russia Council that's supposed to meet tomorrow? I mean...

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, we have to look at these things, as I said before. Already today, we had a G-7 foreign ministers' discussion.

The longer this goes on, the longer Russia behaves in the way it has behaved in the last several days, the more negative the impact will be and the bigger steps that will be needed by the United States and others to shape the environment, respond appropriately, so -- and for Russia to pay the price that it should, given what it has done or is doing in Georgia.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the more immediate sense, the president of Georgia, Saakashvili, today called on the West to give him more than moral support, more than humanitarian support. He didn't say military assistance, but he certainly seemed to imply that.

Is Georgia getting any sort of military assistance now in this effort?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, Georgia -- we did take back the 2,000 Georgian forces that were in Iraq. They already have been returned.

But once this crisis is over, Georgia's military that has been battered has to be reconstituted and be able to do a better job than it has done in facing the current challenge.

There will have to be the reconstruction of Georgia, as well. This has to be a multilateral effort with others who have a stake in the stability of that region of the world.

So it is not only humanitarian. It's not only diplomatic and political, but I think it will have to include those other steps, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you so much.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it's nice to be with you, Margaret.

GWEN IFILL: After that interview, Ambassador Khalilzad went into another meeting of the Security Council. Because of that meeting, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was forced to cancel a scheduled interview with us.