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Diplomats Analyze U.S. Response to Georgia Conflict

August 13, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President Bush on Wednesday promised Georgia that the U.S. military would deliver aid to help it recover from its fighting with Russia. Former diplomats Lawrence Eagleburger and Madeleine Albright analyze the U.S. response.

NICK PATON WALSH: Gori this morning. Georgia’s supposed to be at peace with Russia, so we headed through the town towards South Ossetia for as far as we could.

Locals said houses nearby were under attack, burning. And we could see another plume of smoke further away once we pulled back. And more followed. For the second day in a row, Gori burned.

At the military hospital, evacuated days ago, the Red Cross arrived to see if they could rescue wounded villagers stranded outside the town.

AID WORKER (through translator): This is a — apparently, this is a difficult place today, so we are working here. We are working according to our mandate, trying to help the wounded, trying to help the vulnerable population. This is as much as I can say.

NICK PATON WALSH: You’ve been getting telephone calls, yes, today?

MARIA POTSVERASHVILI, emergency doctor: Yes, they say that we have wounded, wounded, and our (inaudible) go there, but they don’t allow go in village, and they come back. And we can’t evacuate from there our wounded.

NICK PATON WALSH: Prayer and panic. They asked us what was happening in town, terrified by rumors of Russian tanks there. We told them we hadn’t seen any and we headed out of town. In the distance, a column of armor.

We get closer and see the grimy faces, not of Georgian soldiers, but Russians. About 30 vehicles at 1 o’clock this afternoon moving from somewhere deeper inside Georgia into the town of Gori. They drove up a hill near the edge of the town center, an occupying force, quite polite, open, and even cheerful.

They tell me they’ve been in Georgia now for three days. They said they’ve been ordered to build up strength here and send out scouts. They were reasonably relaxed, roaming the Georgian countryside the day after their commander-in-chief had ordered an end to operations.

RUSSIAN SOLDIER (through translator): We got an order to go forward. Where to? We’ll see.

NICK PATON WALSH: He said so far they have an order to be on Georgian territory. “If we’re here, then it’s because we’re supposed to be,” he told me.

They seemed calm and sure of their orders. In all of Gori, we didn’t see any Georgian troops or police. And we should point out that we also didn’t see the Russians open fire at anything or anyone.

But still, even three hours after we were here, Russia denied they had any troops in Gori at all.

They just said they came from Grozny from Chechnya 58th unit. And then one of the guys inside, a senior man, offered to get off the truck and not talk anymore.

Outside town, we saw locals fleeing, all talking of men in uniform, who they said weren’t the Russian army proper, looting and burning their villages.

GEORGIAN CITIZEN: “Money quickly,” they said. I give him some, and then he hit me with his rifle here. They took everything we had and took us out of the car and took the car away, over there. There was shooting and people screaming.

NICK PATON WALSH: South Ossetian militia gunmen on the rampage in evidence today, exacting a new worrying toll on ordinary Georgians. Reports of summary executions, and this man said he saw a girl kidnapped.

Russia later admitted it had, quote, “peacekeepers” in the area, destroying Georgian military bases to secure peace, but the men we saw were definitely not Russian peacekeepers. And tonight they’re thought to still be in Georgia roaming the fields near Gori.

President Bush offers support

President Bush
We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia, and we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country.

GEORGE W. BUSH, president of the United States: Good morning. I've just met with my national security team to discuss the crisis in Georgia. I've spoken with President Saakashvili of Georgia and President Sarkozy of France this morning.

The United States strongly supports France's efforts, as president of the European Union, to broker an agreement that will end this conflict.

The United States of America stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia. We insist that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected.

Russia has stated that changing the government of Georgia is not its goal. The United States and the world expect Russia to honor that commitment.

Russia has also stated that it has halted military operations and agreed to a provisional cease-fire. Unfortunately, we're receiving reports of Russian actions that are inconsistent with these statements.

We're concerned about reports that Russian units have taken up positions on the east side of the city of Gori, which allows them to block the east-to-west highway, divide the country, and threaten the capital of Tbilisi.

We're concerned about reports that Russian forces have entered and taken positions in the port city of Poti, that Russian armored vehicles are blocking access to that port, and that Russia is blowing up Georgian vessels.

We're concerned about reports that Georgian citizens of all ethnic origins are not being protected. All forces, including Russian forces, have an obligation to protect innocent civilians from attack.

With these concerns in mind, I have directed a series of steps to demonstrate our solidarity with the Georgian people and bring about a peaceful resolution to this conflict.

I'm sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to France, where she will confer with President Sarkozy. She will then travel to Tbilisi, where she 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.

I've also directed Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to begin a humanitarian mission to the people of Georgia headed by the United States military. This mission will be vigorous and ongoing.

A U.S. C-17 aircraft with humanitarian supplies is on its way. And in the days ahead, we will use U.S. aircraft, as well as naval forces, to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies.

We expect Russia to honor its commitment to let in all forms of humanitarian assistance. We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads, and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit.

We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia, and we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country.

As I have made clear, Russia's ongoing action raise serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region.

In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic, and security structures of the 21st century. The United States has supported those efforts. Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions.

To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe, and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis.

Thank you.

Necessary move to diffuse tension

Lawrence Eagleburger
Former secretary of state
I think he's given a line right now that tells the Russians that they have reached their limit, as far as our patience is concerned, and that we're going to do everything we can now to support the Georgian regime.

MARGARET WARNER: Now we go to two former secretaries of state to assess the latest developments in the Georgia conflict, and particularly what they mean for the future of U.S. relations with Russia.

Madeleine Albright served as secretary of state in President Clinton's second term. And Lawrence Eagleburger held the post at the end of the first Bush presidency.

Welcome to you both.

Secretary Eagleburger, what kind of a line is President Bush drawing here with this announcement of support and sending the U.S. military to deliver the aid?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, former secretary of state: I think he's given a line right now that tells the Russians that they have reached their limit, as far as our patience is concerned, and that we're going to do everything we can now to support the Georgian regime.

And we'll see whether it takes or not. We have to -- I'm quite doubtful that the Russians are going to back off on this at the moment, but at least for the moment, the president's given them a position from which they are supposed to react.

MARGARET WARNER: Is he essentially saying to them that, when U.S. military delivers the aid, if any of the ports or roads are blocked, you're going to be confronting the U.S. military?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: I have my doubts about that. I don't think he's gone that far yet.

But, certainly, there is that chance. And if, in fact, the ports are blocked and a naval vessel is trying to get in there to deliver some humanitarian assistance, there's no question that, at that state, the two powers are going to be facing each other across some guns. And I think that's -- hopefully, that will never happen.

MARGARET WARNER: How serious a move was today, Madeleine Albright?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, former secretary of state: Well, I think it was serious. I think it was the right thing for President Bush to say. I wish that some of this had happened earlier, because, in fact, this situation has been developing over a number of months.

This particular confrontation between the Georgians and the Russians is something that has been out there. And there should have been diplomatic activity a long time ago.

This is one of these things known as a "frozen conflict." But it clearly has thawed, and there should have been diplomatic activity.

But I think also President Bush made it clear that the Europeans are behind us. I also wish that he had asked Secretary Rice to go to Moscow. I think it is important to make clear to the Russians directly that this is unacceptable behavior.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Madam Secretary, what do you think it says about the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship even now that President Bush has said he called these other world leaders, has not called either Prime Minister Putin or President Medvedev, and that, in fact, Condoleezza Rice is not going to Moscow?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think it shows that we are somewhat confused about the Russian relationship and still operating on the basis of President Bush's initial reaction to President Putin, when he said that he looked into his eyes and trusted him.

They apparently had some kind of a conversation at the Olympics. But it strikes me that it is not only important to talk to the French, because they are president of the European Union, and to show support for President Saakashvili, but I think that direct language with the Russians to the Russians would be useful.

Days ahead with be decisive

Madeleine Albright
Former secretary of state
[The Russians] want to re-integrate a large part of what was the Russian empire. They also want to make clear that they control the energy flows from that part of the world, as well as from Central Asia.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Eagleburger, President Bush said -- and he said it before -- that Russia's putting at risk its relationship with the U.S., its relationship with Europe, and it's -- as he put it -- aspirations to join the international system, to be more integrated.

How real a threat is that? Can the U.S. deliver on it? When would the U.S. deliver on it? How much farther does this have to go before the U.S. will have to try to take some action of that nature?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: Well, first of all, that's the important question, I think, right now, and that is, how does this develop over the next few days?

And if it continues, if the Russians do not back off now, if they continue and, in fact, move toward Tbilisi and so forth, then I think the time is going to have come by then that we need to announce further steps.

And, by the way, I think that would -- the French now taking the lead in terms of trying to develop a relationship where the Russians will back down, I think that's the way to go. I don't agree that we should be sending people to Moscow or talking to them directly. I think that should be left for the moment to the French.

But in terms of our own commitments now, really what is going to be very critical is to see what happens over the next several days. And if the Russians don't stop, don't begin to back off, I think we have to assume that their objective may well be the re-integration of Georgia into Russia or, at least, if not that, something close to it.

And I think, under those circumstances, the best we can do -- what we must do, in line with all of our allies, is to develop a list of sanctions and put them in place. That does not mean that they will necessarily succeed, but I think we need to begin to move on the sanctions.

I think the president has made it very clear that the test now is going to be whether the Russians really do want to integrate into the international community. And if they don't, there are a number of steps we will take.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Albright, the foreign minister of Russia said today, Foreign Minister Lavrov, that it's the U.S. that faces a tough choice, either a partnership with Russia, as he put it, on these big issues, like Iran or North Korea, versus -- or, you know, defending a -- he called it a virtual project -- like Georgia. Is he right, the U.S. has to choose, or is it still possible to have both?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think the statement was fairly outrageous to say that a democratically elected president in Georgia is a virtual project. President Saakashvili has been elected twice. There was a revolution called the Rose Revolution.

The problem here is that the Russians are not realizing what the position is. They want to re-integrate a large part of what was the Russian empire. They also want to make clear that they control the energy flows from that part of the world, as well as from Central Asia.

And I think that we have to make very clear that independent states on Russia's border should not be seen as a threat. And that, if Russia, in fact -- it has oil, no doubt, and gas -- but, ultimately, they have to sell it, and they, too, are dependent on an international market, and that a lot of investors are going to wonder what all their future is about, the lack of credibility of the Russian system.

So I think the Russians have the choice. America, I think, needs to stand up for democratic governments. And President Saakashvili is one of those people.

And it does send a message to the whole region, frankly. So I think -- I know Sergey Lavrov pretty well. I think that this was not a wise statement on his part.

Russian intentions determine fate

Lawrence Eagleburger
Former secretary of state
If the Russians are intent on moving to take over the whole country, which I hope they are not, then ... there's not much I think we can do in the way to stop them. We can make it painful for them, but we can't stop them.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, Secretary Eagleburger, that the U.S. still has more leverage here than Russia does?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: Oh, I agree. I think we do have -- well, up to a limit we have more leverage. On the other hand, I think it is also correct that we have some prices to pay if the relationship sours, for example, on the whole issue of Iran, whether the Russians will assist or be more difficult, a whole series of areas where, in fact, we will have some painful choices to make.

But I think there is no question -- and I think the secretary is correct in saying we have to stand up for what's right, no matter what the costs. And I do think we have some very significant leverage ourselves, if what the Russians -- I almost said Soviets -- if what the Russians want is, in fact, integration into the community of nations in a more economic -- particularly on the economic side of things, I think we have some leverage.

But, in the end, if the Russians are intent on moving to take over the whole country, which I hope they are not, then I think, if they're intent on that, there's not much I think we can do in the way to stop them. We can make it painful for them, but we can't stop them, I don't think.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Secretary Albright, fundamentally, however this turns out, I mean, could the U.S. go back to treating Russia, dealing with Russia as it had before this, or is this essentially a game-changer, whatever happens?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, I think we have to be very careful, both the U.S. and Russia, not to go back to Cold War period and treat each other as adversaries, because as Secretary Eagleburger says, we're into an entirely different world.

We have to approach things differently. We have to see that we are all part of trying to solve the 21st-century problems.

I hope it is not a game-changer, in terms of putting things backwards. I do think, however, that it is and should be seen as a realistic sign that the Russians have their own agenda, that we have to be very careful about it, that we have to remember that we do support democracies, and that this is where diplomacy comes in. It is very difficult.

But I think we have to be careful not to get ourselves back into a Cold War, 20th-century approach when we are looking at 21st-century problems.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you see that, Secretary Eagleburger, whether this is a permanent game-changer, in terms of the U.S. relationship with Russia?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: I don't know the answer to that yet. I don't know the answer to that yet. If, in fact, the issue of Russian desire to re-integrate into the empire, those countries, those states that left, and have left, if their desire is to begin to integrate those back into the system, then I think it is potentially a very serious game-changer.

I think -- that's why, to my mind, we will have to figure out -- and within the next several -- next week, let's say -- what is it that the Russians really are trying to get at here?

Is it simply a question of reacting to some difficulties in Ossetia? Or is it, in fact, that they have taken this as a means of jumping ahead to try to begin to re-integrate some of these countries back into the empire?

And if it's the latter, and if they continue with it, then I think we are faced with some very serious choices which, to some degree, whether we like it or not, will return us to some Cold War activity.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, what is your hunch on this, in terms of Russia's intentions?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think, if we stand up to the Russians and push back, that we are much better off, because otherwise the Russians, given the way they usually operate, will keep pushing.

And I do think that Georgia needs to be a part of the Western system and that we need to re-look at the various arrangements that we have with them and indicate to Georgia that we support their accession to NATO membership, ultimately.

MARGARET WARNER: Madeleine Albright, Lawrence Eagleburger, thank you both.