After Georgia, What's Next for U.S. and Russia?

APCondoleezza Rice visiting wounded people at a hospital in Tbilisi after meeting with Mikheil Saakashvili on Friday.
WASHINGTON -- There is blame to go around as the United States assesses the disastrous consequences of the war in Georgia.

U.S. President George W. Bush was overconfident. Georgia's pro-American President Mikheil Saakashvili overreached. And Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin overreacted.

Now what?

Washington is trimming cooperation with Russia on several fronts, most of them military so far, while saying the loss is Russia's. Putin, clearly in charge if there was any doubt before, seems unconcerned.

But even as the White House has concluded Moscow must pay further for an out-of-bounds war with U.S.-backed Georgia, it is worried now about going too far itself.

The cost of overpunishing, Bush's advisers believe, could be to feed Russian grievance and encourage the very Cold War-style regional aggression the West decries. Bush advisers appeared startled over recent days at raw statements coming from Moscow that suggest many in the Kremlin still put a premium on maintaining or even expanding the territory under Moscow's control.

An even bigger cost could be the cold shoulder from Moscow the next time the United States needs its help.

Say, a few weeks from now when Washington wants Russia's vote for a new round of UN Security Council penalties against Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program. Or perhaps if North Korea balks over the plan to get rid of its atomic bomb arsenal.

A Russian plan to host a follow-up to Bush's Middle East peace conference of last year is probably dead for now.

Nonetheless, the White House has decided there will be further consequences for Russia, whether or not it fully complies with a U.S.-backed cease-fire that was signed by Saakashvili on Friday and by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday.

For one thing, other nations in the region that once were Soviet republics or satellites have become nervous. Those countries need to hear world leaders tell Russia its actions in Georgia were unacceptable -- and to see some bite that shows they mean it. Bush's credentials as a self-styled global freedom fighter, particularly one who promised unflinching support to democratic Georgia and may have indirectly emboldened Saakashvili to undertake his military misadventure in one of the breakaway provinces that provoked Russia's brutal response, also are at stake.

But Bush also still wants to make sure Russian leaders pick up the phone when America calls. The last thing U.S. officials want is a 10-year freeze in U.S.-Russia relations.

So with just five months left in office, the Bush White House has settled on an approach to punishing Moscow that would be intentionally low profile. Bush advisers have concluded that anything perceived by Russia as a public humiliation would be counterproductive. The best approach in their view is quiet action, such as continuing to exclude Russia's foreign minister from discussions among his counterparts in the Group of Eight, as has been happening since the Russia-Georgia fighting began last week.

Most speculation had centered on kicking Russia out of the G8, which was known as the Group of Seven before Russia was included a few years ago. Even such a public, dramatic move would likely have little practical effect given the group's lack of power to enforce policies.

Another option would have the United States revoke its support for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, another penalty that, although probably the toughest available, may not sting much for increasingly oil-rich Russia. U.S. officials have all but rejected that route as overkill.

The idea is to give Russia face-saving leeway to decide that Western institutions and Western-style governance are the way of its future.

The trick, of course, is convincing Russia of that -- a task that puts U.S. officials in the position of trying to get Russia back on a path it may never have been fully on.

The Bush administration believes that its best argument is economic, essentially telling Moscow that to remain a country that merely sells gobs of energy worldwide but lacks international prestige and access to lucrative markets for a range of products would mire it in third-world status, rather than the first-world rank it desires.