Nation & World

U.S. knew Georgia trouble was coming, but couldn't stop it

WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials, worried by what they saw as a series of provocative Russian actions, repeatedly warned Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to avoid giving the Kremlin an excuse to intervene in his country militarily, U.S. officials said Monday.

But in the end, the warnings failed to stop the Georgian president — a Bush favorite — from launching an attack last week that on Monday seemed likely to end not only in his country’s military humiliation but complete occupation by Russian forces.

The cost of the fighting in lives has yet to be tallied. But President Bush on Monday made it clear that the outcome was sure to mark a turning point in Russia’s relations with the West. It might also prove costly for the West’s relationship with the budding democracies of Eastern Europe, which now must contemplate a world where the United States could do little to protect a close ally in the face of a determined Russian onslaught.

"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people," President Bush proclaimed after returning from China. "Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century."

"These actions jeopardize Russia's relations with the United States and Europe," Bush said. "It's time for Russia to be true to its word to act to end this crisis."

Pentagon officials said that despite having 130 trainers assigned to Georgia, they had no advance notice of Georgia’s sudden move last Thursday to send thousands of Georgian troops into South Ossetia to capture that province's capital, Tskhinvali.

Not only did the U.S. troops working alongside their Georgian counterparts not see any signs of an impending invasion, Georgian officials did not notify the U.S. military before the incursion, a senior U.S. defense official told McClatchy.

But the Bush administration had fretted for months over what officials saw as intensifying Russian moves that it feared were aimed at provoking Georgia into a conflict over South Ossetia or Abkhazia, another secessionist province.

Russia has been angry over Georgia's close links with Washington, and has been determined to stop the admission to NATO of its former vassal, which is located on strategic energy and transportation routes to Central Asia.

The Russian actions against Georgia "seemed designed to provoke a Georgian over-reaction," said a senior U.S. official. "We have always counseled restraint to the Georgians."

Some experts, however, wondered whether the administration might have inadvertently sent Saakashvili mixed messages that would have led him to believe he could count on U.S. support if he got into trouble.

Bush lavished praise on the U.S.-educated Georgian leader as a "beacon of democracy." He gave military training and equipment to Georgia, which supplied the third-largest contingent to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and had promised NATO membership, they said. He visited the country in 2005 and addressed a huge crowd from the same podium as Saakashvili.

"The Russians have clearly overreacted but President Saakashvili . . . for some reason seems to think he has a hall pass from this administration," said former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

U.S. officials had been warning of Russian actions designed to provoke Georgia for months.

In June, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Russia's "unremitting" political and economic pressure included closing its border with Georgia, suspending air and transportation links, imposing an embargo on Georgian agricultural exports and allowing Russian banks to operate "virtually unregulated" with unlicensed Abkhazian banks.

Earlier this year, he said, Russia strengthened official ties with separatist leaders in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, shot down an unmanned Georgian surveillance drone, sent heavy combat troops with artillery as peacekeepers to Abkhazia and dispatched military personnel to repair a rail line without Georgia's permission.

He also said senior Russian officials were assigned to the internationally unrecognized self-declared governments in the two enclaves and that senior Russian military officers operated with the separatists' military forces.

The senior U.S. official said the Russians had also dragged their feet on a recent German-led effort to head off a conflict.

A "parade" of U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visited Tbilisi to urge Saakashvili to avoid giving the Kremlin to act, a State Department officials said.

At the same time, U.S. officials said that they believed they had an understanding with Russia that any response to Georgian military action would be limited to South Ossetia.

"We knew they were going to go crack heads. We told them again and again not to do this," the State Department official said. "We thought we had an understanding with the Russians that any response would be South Ossetia-focused. Clearly it's not."

One problem in under-estimating the Russian response, another U.S. official said, was "a dearth of intelligence assets in the region."

U.S. "national technical means," the official name for spy satellites and other technology, are "pretty well consumed by Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan," the official said, and there was only limited monitoring of Russian military movements toward the Georgian border.

Additionally, the United States had lost access to vital information when Russia dropped out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in December to protest U.S. plans to build missile defense sites in Europe.

Under the treaty, Russia had been required to exchange reports on troop, armor and aircraft deployments with the United States and other members on a monthly basis. But once Russia dropped out, that information was no longer available.

"I wouldn't say we were blind," the official said. "I would say that we mostly were focused elsewhere, unlike during the Cold War, when we'd see a single Soviet armor battalion move. So, yes, the size and scope of the Russian move has come as something of a surprise."

Now, the United States is left with few options for countering what it calls Russia's "disproportionate" response to Georgia if the Kremlin persists in spurning a U.S.-backed European plan calling for a ceasefire, a pullback of all forces, an accord on the non-use of force and deployment of international monitors.

The delicacy of the situation was underscored by the U.S. decision to leave its military advisers in Georgia, though, with Georgia's troops no longer in Iraq, there was little for the advisers to do.

"While their utility in country may be very limited, removing them might inadvertently signal to the world that we are abandoning our ally, which we most certainly are not," said a senior U.S. military official.

(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report.)

Related stories from Vida en el Valle