Western Leaders Pump Up Rhetoric

TBILISI, Georgia — Western diplomatic efforts to resolve a crisis between Russia and Georgia took on a sharper edge over the weekend, as Russian soldiers remained deployed in Georgia despite the signing of a truce.

The overwhelming message was that Moscow had to back away from Georgia militarily.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the truce, warned President Dmitry Medvedev by telephone Sunday that Russia would face "serious consequences" from the European Union if the soldiers and tanks stayed put.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking after a meeting in Tbilisi with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, warned that Russia's credibility was at risk and that Georgia remained a NATO candidate.

One day earlier, U.S. President George W. Bush declared that the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would remain part of Georgia no matter what Russia thought, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarked on a string of trans-Atlantic flights, apparently to put more pressure on Moscow.

The United Nations, meanwhile, was expected shortly to adopt a resolution authorizing the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to replace Russian peacekeepers in the region.

Merkel told Saakashvili on Sunday that Tbilisi's aspirations to join NATO were still realistic: "Georgia will, if it wants, and it clearly does want to, become a NATO member," she said.

Saakashvili had earlier lambasted European NATO members for refusing his country a Membership Action Plan to join the Western defense alliance.

At a NATO summit in Bucharest in April, Merkel joined with Sarkozy in leading opposition to offering Georgia a membership plan, arguing that it was not ready because of the unresolved status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Saakashvili said Friday that this had actually precipitated the war. They "told the world that they are denying Georgia the Membership Action Plan because of the existing territorial conflicts in Georgia, basically inviting trouble," he said at the joint news conference with Rice in Tbilisi.

But Merkel said Sunday that the war had not changed Georgia's position. Tbilisi could also hope for aid for rebuilding its military at Tuesday's NATO council meeting, she said.

Over the weekend, Russian forces were still busy destroying Georgian military hardware.

Merkel held talks with Medvedev on Friday in Sochi, where she criticized Moscow's "disproportionate reaction" to Georgia's attack, while Medvedev defiantly said Russia would not think twice about using force again in the future.

Medvedev stressed that Moscow will continue to fulfill its peacekeeping mandate. "If someone continues to attack our citizens, our peacekeepers, we will, of course, respond just the same way. There should be no doubt about this."

He also said Russia would not offer excuses for its actions and would present evidence of what he said were crimes committed by the Georgian troops in South Ossetia.

Medvedev said Moscow had nothing against European peacekeepers in the region but that it was unlikely that South Ossetia and Abkhazia would remain part of Georgia.

By contrast, Bush warned Saturday that Moscow cannot lay claim to the two separatist regions: "There is no room for debate on this matter," he told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The comments came after Bush met with Rice, who had visited Tbilisi on Friday and returned to the United States on Saturday to report to him. She was scheduled to fly to Brussels for a NATO meeting Tuesday, which was called for by Washington to review the alliance's relations with Russia.

Speaking in Tbilisi on Friday, Rice said she had come to show Washington's support for the embattled country.

"Georgia has been attacked. Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once," she said.

Rice said the truce brokered by France had been transformed from an unsigned paper into a signed document, and should carry more weight.

"I have to assume that the president of Russia, having given not just his word, but his signature to the president of the EU, will honor it," Rice said Friday. Medvedev signed the deal Saturday.

An emotional Saakashvili lambasted Moscow, referring to Russia as " the barbarians of the 21st century," he said.

He also repeated the claim that Moscow, not Tbilisi, had carefully planned the war by striking during vacations.

"They brilliantly selected the time," Saakashvili said. "I had to cut short my holiday. My Defense Minister was on holiday."

Analysts in Moscow, meanwhile, have accused Tbilisi of scheduling the attack for Aug. 8, when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Beijing for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games and Medvedev was vacationing on the Volga.

Georgia maintains that it was forced to launch its attack on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali after receiving intelligence that a huge amount of Russian military hardware was being moved into the breakaway province through the Roksky tunnel from North Ossetia.

Saakashvili also said Sunday that civilians had been sent from Tskhinvali to North Ossetia three days before hostilities started. "We only had two choices — resist or surrender," he said.

Countering Merkel's comments, former German Chancellor Gerhard SchrЪder blamed Tbilisi for the war and echoed Medvedev's comments on the future of Georgia's breakaway regions.

"I don't believe Russia is pursuing a policy of annexation, and I also don't believe that there will be a return to the previous status quo for South Ossetia and Abkhazia," SchrЪder told German weekly Der Spiegel. "That is out of the question."

Despite the apparent hardening of positions around the conflict, there were still some attempts to spread responsibility more evenly.

"In fact, both sides are probably to blame," Merkel said in Sochi. "That's very important to understand."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner offered the same sentiment.

"There were major errors of judgment on the part of the Georgians and an obviously disproportionate response on the part of the Russians," he said in an interview published Sunday in the weekly Journal du Dimanche.

Kouchner said he hoped the UN resolution authorizing international peacekeepers would be passed this Sunday but said it would be at least a few weeks before any force could be in place.