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U.S. likely to target Russia economically, diplomatically

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - With President Bush warning Russia that its push into Georgia could jeopardize relations with the U.S. and Europe, the United States signaled yesterday that any retribution will be aimed at the Russian economy and prestige.

Russia's pummeling of Georgian troops has left Washington with few palatable military options, said administration officials who requested anonymity when discussing internal policy decisions. But while acknowledging that military aid to Georgia was off the table and sanctions against Russia were impractical, they insisted that the United States could take longer-term economic and diplomatic measures that would hit the Kremlin hard.

"Just because we are not rushing to place U.S. infantry in Tbilisi does not mean the world is impotent in the face of this aggression," said a senior Pentagon official.

The U.S. policy debate came as Russia's military forces opened new fronts in its conflict with Georgia yesterday, capturing strategic ground near the city of Gori beyond South Ossetia and overrunning a military base outside a separate breakaway province, Georgian authorities said.

The moves heightened fears in Georgia that the Kremlin's ultimate aim is to bring the West-allied nation back into Moscow's fold.

Georgian authorities said their troops and military vehicles based in Gori retreated to within 15 miles of the capital, Tbilisi, after Russian forces pushed into the central city.

Gori had been a staging point for Georgia's all-out assault on the separatist region of South Ossetia last week, setting off an international crisis that diplomats have been scrambling to contain. Russia responded with a display of military force that included bombing raids on Gori and other cities in Georgia where military facilities are based.

Russia's Defense Ministry denied that its troops were in Gori, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

The incursions into Gori and the region outside Abkhazia, Georgia's other separatist-controlled province, marked the first time that Russian troops have entered a part of Georgia not controlled by a Moscow-backed separatist government.

U.S. officials said the most likely options to pressure Russia were through global institutions. Russia is attempting to join the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Membership is now likely to be blocked, they said.

Others raised the possibility of kicking Russia out of the Group of Eight, the annual gathering of leading industrialized nations.

On its own, officials said, the United States could deny Russia normalized trade status, currently blocked by a 1970s-era statute known as Jackson-Vanik.

In brief remarks from the White House Rose Garden, Bush said that if reports of Russian troops threatening Tbilisi were accurate, it would mark a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of the conflict. Moscow's actions in Georgia "have substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world," the president said.

But his rhetoric contained few concrete proposals, short of backing a French-led diplomatic effort to get Russia to agree to a cease-fire, a plan the Kremlin appears to have rejected. A senior U.S. official directly involved in policymaking cautioned that because Bush had just returned from Beijing yesterday, final decisions on a course of action had not been made.

Over the past 48 hours, Russia experts and former military and diplomatic officials have proposed a wide range of ways to push back Russian troops - from instituting a no-fly zone over Georgian airspace, for example, to supplying the Georgian military with air defense systems.

But administration officials said the list of measures actually under consideration - such as sending humanitarian aid and rebuilding the Georgian military once fighting ends - is far narrower.

"The regular tool kit does not really work here," said a U.S. government analyst who specializes in Russia's relations with its former republics. "The Russians have plenty of money now, and we need their oil more than they need our credits."

The senior Pentagon official put it more bluntly: "Are you going to go to war with them?"

The United States continued to provide a limited amount of help yesterday, as the last of the 2,000 Georgian troops that had been deployed to Iraq were expected to land back in their home country on U.S. military transport planes last night.

The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi also began distributing its limited supplies of disaster relief - unlikely to last more than a day, said a State Department spokesman - and the administration was working with the United Nations to fly in U.S. medical supplies from Germany.

But beyond that, and a decision not to withdraw the 100 or so U.S. military trainers from Tbilisi, most of the support offered by Washington has been rhetorical.

In the short term, U.S. officials believe that financial markets will exert pressure on Russian behavior. A Democratic Senate aide said the conflict should push up insurance rates for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in the nearby southern Russia town of Sochi, to prohibitive levels. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin's efforts to create a financial center in Moscow could also be snuffed out.

An administration official familiar with the thinking of Bush and other senior officials predicted that the international community would unite against the Russian action, arguing that the Kremlin miscalculated by thinking that its control of vast stores of oil and gas gave it license to throw its military weight around.

"We'll get cold, but how do you [the Russians] expect your economy to stand without selling oil and gas?" the administration official asked. "Did I hear someone say they're buying Russian cars? Russian fashion? It's like putting a gun to your own head and saying, 'Stop or I'll shoot.' "

The senior U.S. official involved in policymaking added that while Russia might have the upper hand militarily over Georgia, its heavy-handed treatment of a small neighbor might backfire in the longer term.

"It will be chilling to many countries but also will, I think, steel their determination not to lose the sovereignty that they've so painfully won and maintained since the end of the Soviet Union," said the official.

Getting the international community to back a policy of isolating Russia could prove difficult, analysts said.

Stephen Sestanovich, who oversaw the Soviet desk at the State Department during the Clinton administration, noted that statements issued by European leaders so far have only criticized Russia's "disproportionate" use of force or decried the humanitarian crises.

"We're talking about the kind of language that is used, for example, when countries put down an insurrection in their own territory," Sestanovich said. An appeal for humanitarian assistance, he said, "calls attention to a real need, but it deflects attention to some extent from the real issue, which looks like conquest."

Current and former officials suggested that the United States could take more drastic action if Russia moves to take Tbilisi and overthrow President Mikhail Saakashvili's government. Under that scenario, the U.S. government analyst said, aiding a rebel Georgian army would probably be considered.

Charles Wald, a retired Air Force general and former deputy head of European Command, said the United States would need to step up private communications with Russia and warn that it will do more to protect Georgia if military action continues.

But he also faulted the administration, saying that the United States should have been paying closer attention to escalating tensions in Georgia and erred by suggesting to Saakashvili that Washington would back him militarily.

"Retrospectively, if we allowed Saakashvili to think we are strategically going to protect him, we probably made a big mistake," Wald said.

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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