Some of the critics charged that the Republican Party sought to use the conflict to benefit the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, a longstanding and vocal critic of Russia.
The Western-leaning government of Georgia late last week launched an offensive to regain control of the breakaway Russia-backed region of South Ossetia. Russia sent in tanks and troops, forced a Georgian withdrawal from the province, and has since then continued attacks on Georgian targets beyond South Ossetia, reportedly capturing a key town, Gori.
President Bush on Monday, in his strongest reaction yet, accused Russia of invading a sovereign neighboring state and threatening its elected government. He said the moves were not consistent with Moscow’s assurances that its objectives were limited to restoring calm to South Ossetia. “Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.”
But for top legislators in Moscow, the U.S. is to blame.
Russia has “no illusions” about who is behind Georgia’s actions, declared Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper Federation Council.
Georgia’s backers on the other side of the Atlantic apparently did not expect a strong Russian reaction, he added.
In the lower State Duma, speaker Boris Gryzlov said the conflict in the Caucasus should be viewed in the light of the U.S. Republican presidential campaign, with McCain trying to exploit the issue to pick up electoral support.
Gryzlov even suggested that some type of “Wag the Dog” scenario was being played out in Georgia, a reference to a 1997 movie about a Washington operator who distracts domestic attention from the presidential campaign by fabricating a distant war.
Mironov and Gryzlov are respectively heads of Fair Russia and United Russia parties, both pro-Kremlin in outlook.
Head of the opposition Communist Party, Guennady Zyuganov, added to the anti-American drumbeat, saying that the U.S. and its pawns who armed and trained Georgia’s army should be held responsible for war crimes in South Ossetia.
Zyuganov also rejected the U.S. demand for a return to the status quo of last Wednesday – before Georgian or Russian forces moved into South Ossetia. “Restoration of the earlier status quo would amount to encouragement of the criminal clique” of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, the communist leader said.
Russia should not stop halfway, he said, but should “defeat the aggressor” and recognize the independence of South Ossetia and another separatist region of Georgia where Russia has now deployed additional troops, Abkhazia.
Duma deputy speaker Lyubov Sliska, also a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia, also urged the government to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia unilaterally.
Sliska recalled that the Duma had suggested that course of action last March. Had it occurred then, it would have prevented the current conflict, she said.
With Russian support, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have enjoyed de facto independence since brief wars against the Georgian government in the early 1990s, but are not recognized by the international community.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Malakhov cautioned Monday that recognition of independence for the two regions would be “premature” before the current crisis was resolved. He also denied that Moscow sought to topple the Saakashvili government, as alleged by Washington.
(U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad told a Security Council meeting Sunday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a phone conversation “that a democratically elected president of Georgia – and I quote – must go.” Lavrov subsequently said Rice had “misinterpreted” his remarks.)
In contrast to the tough tone struck by the Russian lawmakers, Sergei Mitrokhin, head of the small liberal Yabloko party – which over the past 13 years has seen its parliamentary representation slashed from 45 seats to none – warned that Russia should not antagonize the international community.
“Military escalation is unacceptable,” he said, urging the Russian leadership to refrain from using military force in a bid to change the regime in Georgia.
Russia’s military objectives in Georgia remain unclear. President Dmitry Medvedev said Monday that Russia’s military operation in South Ossetia was basically completed, with the area’s main town under the control of “a reinforced Russian peacekeeping force.”
Georgian officials claimed that Russian troops had moved beyond South Ossetia, effectively splitting the eastern and western regions of the small country. The Russian Defense Ministry denied reports that its troops were seizing territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Meanwhile the U.N. Security Council was late Monday holding a fifth meeting on the crisis since late last week.
Any U.S.-led attempt to get a resolution passed will face an uphill battle, given Russia’s veto power.
In a bid to deprive Russia of traditional ally in the council, Georgia turned to China for support Monday.
After meeting with China’s foreign minister, Georgian ambassador to China Zaza Begashvili told reporters in Beijing he hoped China would make the right decision and voice its opposition to aggression against an independent state, the Voice of America reported.
China’s public statements on the crisis to date have centered on calls for a ceasefire, and for the conflict to be resolved peacefully, through dialogue.
European efforts to push for a ceasefire are continuing, led by France, which holds the rotating European Union presidency. Saakashvili said in a televised address on Monday night that French President Nicolas Sarkozy would be in Tbilisi on Tuesday.
“We are ready to immediately sign an agreement on ceasefire and non-resumption of confrontation,” said the Georgian leader, who first offered a ceasefire on Sunday.