WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush told Russia on Monday to end its military action in Georgia and said it appeared Moscow was trying to overthrow the elected government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Bush warned that a “dramatic and brutal escalation” of Moscow’s push into the smaller country would jeopardize its relations with the West.
“Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century,” Bush told reporters at the White House.
Shortly after Bush spoke, Saakashvili said Moscow should know Georgia will not quit.
“Georgia will never surrender,” he said on CNN when asked what he would say to Russian officials if they were watching. “They should know Georgia will never surrender.”
The crisis began on Thursday when Georgia sent forces to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Russian area that broke from Georgia in the 1990s. Moscow, which supports South Ossetia’s independence, responded by sending its troops into Georgia.
The conflict escalated quickly and, by Monday, Georgia appealed for international help and said its military had retreated to defend its capital city, Tbilisi.
Foreign ministers from the world’s leading industrial nations urged Russia on Monday to agree to an immediate cease-fire. Washington also sent a special envoy, senior State Department official Matt Bryza, to Tbilisi to join international mediation efforts.
Moscow snubbed the plea for a cease-fire and criticized Washington’s support for Georgia, saying the West had manipulated the truth about the war to present Georgians as victims rather than aggressors.
“The Russian government must reverse the course that it appears to be on and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward resolving this conflict,” Bush said.
“Russia’s actions this week have raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. These actions have substantially damaged Russia’s standing in the world,” he said. “And these actions jeopardize Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe.”
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said the outlook was “grim” and that Russia had planned its moves in Georgia for some time.
“Their accounting is so distorted it recalls the phrase the ‘big lie’,” the official told reporters in a conference call.
“This appears to be a full invasion of Georgia with an end result uncertain and an objective that is not clear but appears to be aggressive in nature,” the official said. “Words like invasion should not be used lightly but this is an invasion.”
The senior official said Russia “will find itself increasingly isolated in the world if it continues as it has.”
Bush cited reports that Russian troops had moved beyond the separatist areas and into Georgia proper. He also said there was evidence Russian forces would soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the Georgian capital.
“If these reports are accurate, these Russian actions would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia,” Bush said after returning from a trip to China for the Olympic Games.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell