U.S. Toughens Rhetoric On Russia-Georgia Conflict

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy. i i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) Thursday. Rice stopped in France to talk with foreign officials about a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy on the Russian-Georgian conflict. She heads to Georgia Friday. Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) Thursday. Rice stopped in France to talk with foreign officials about a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy on the Russian-Georgian conflict. She heads to Georgia Friday.

Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR

As U.S. government officials struggle to get a good sense of what is happening on the ground in Georgia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is starting to play a more visible role on the diplomatic front. She was in talks in Paris Thursday, again calling on Russia to pull back.

"It is time for this crisis to be over," Rice said. "The Russian president has said that their military operations have halted. We would hope that he is true to his word and that those operations will halt."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says that Rice will ask Georgia to sign a cease-fire document that he negotiated with the Russians when she heads to Tbilisi Friday. But the peace plan on the table appears to make major concessions to Russia.

The Cease-Fire Plan

Georgians have raised concerns that part of the French peace plan is too vague, giving Russia room to maneuver and keep some forces not only in the breakaway South Ossetia region, where this conflict began, but also in other parts of Georgia.

Georgian Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze has said his small nation is ready for a cease-fire, but only under certain conditions.

"We don't want any cease-fire document to become the legitimization for Russian occupation of Georgian territories," Sikharulidze said.

Officials traveling with Rice told reporters that the six-point plan she's bringing to Tbilisi Friday gives Russians a limited right to patrol in Georgia — beyond the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia where they already had peacekeepers.

But Rice did not mention that in public, insisting that both the U.S. and France respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.

"We will work very hard to see if we can bring an end to this crisis," Rice said. "It is long overdue. Too many innocent people have died. And Georgia, whose territorial integrity and independence and sovereignty we fully respect, must be able to get back to normal life."

Ignoring Russia's Bluster

U.S. officials say they are ignoring what they call the latest bluster from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov told reporters Thursday that the world should forget about Georgia's territorial integrity because South Ossetia and Abkhazia cannot be forced back under Georgian rule.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that it is clear this conflict is about more than those regions and that this is Moscow's attempt to regain its sphere of influence. He said there should be consequences for Russia's aggression in Georgia, though he ruled out the use of U.S. military force.

"The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," Gates said. "I see no reason to change that approach today."

A Threat To U.S.-Russian Relations

Gates has been tasked with a humanitarian operation and says that it appears the Georgian port in Poti is intact and supply routes are open. He warned that if Russia does not step back, U.S. and Russian relations could be hurt for years to come, and so too will Russia's aspirations to join international institutions.

"Everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we — as we look ahead," Gates said. "And I think Russia's got some serious work to do to try and work its way back into the family of nations that are trying to work together and build democracy and build — and build their economies."

Perhaps the first sign of change happened in Poland, where the U.S. finally got the agreement it wanted to station U.S. missile interceptors as part of a missile defense system. Poland had been reluctant to go along with the U.S. plans for fear of angering Russia, but it initialed the deal Thursday.

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