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Rice: Russia Risks International Condemnation

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The United States says it's sending major humanitarian aid to Georgia in an operation run by the Pentagon. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way to the region to show solidarity with Georgia's government. Before leaving, Rice said Russia is risking international condemnation in its conflict.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed.

INSKEEP: We're going to get more this morning from NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. And Michele, just listening to Condi Rice right now, I have to wonder how much has changed. The United States has made it clear it's not going to intervene militarily, here.

MICHELE KELEMEN: That's right. I mean, basically, what we're hearing is much more stronger rhetoric and this promise that President Bush made yesterday of a vigorous and ongoing humanitarian operation that's going to be run by the Pentagon.

We're also seeing the president postponing his vacation plans, and Secretary Rice called off her vacation. You know, Georgia's president seems to be pleased with this tougher rhetoric. He's been complaining that the Bush administration's initial comments were far too weak, in that it essentially gave the Russians a green light to act.

INSKEEP: Well, is Georgia supposed to get the idea that it can resist more strongly, that it will get concrete support from Washington, as well as humanitarian aid and rhetoric?

KELEMEN: That's not what the signals that the Bush administration is trying to send. You know, both the president and the secretary were very tough about this humanitarian operation, saying that Russia has to keep its sea routes open, its air routes open to the U.S. so that the U.S. military can bring in supplies.

Georgian President Saakashvili thought that this meant that ports and airports would be under U.S. control. Now, the Pentagon immediately denied that was this case. This was mainly a message to send to Russia that it should allow of these aid shipments to come through.

INSKEEP: Okay, so what leverage does Secretary Rice have to change the situation when she gets to the region?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, it's interesting. She was in Georgia earlier this summer. Her aides said that she did press Georgia's president not to, you know, take the bait from Russia or the separatists that Moscow support. Tensions were building for months.

So U.S. policymakers weren't really surprised by this, but they do seem to be really taken aback by Russia's response. So Rice said yesterday that Russia overreached, that its invasion, as officials here have been calling it, show that this was about far more than South Ossetia or Abkhazia, which is another one of these breakaway regions that Moscow supports. And she said if Russia continues to violate a cease-fire, that it will deepen its isolation.

So that seems to be the leverage that the U.S. at least thinks it has, that Russia wants to integrate into various institutions, and the U.S. may try to stop that.

INSKEEP: Well, what does Russia have to say when the U.S. voices support for Georgia like this?

KELEMEN: Russia's foreign minister yesterday said that he understands that the Georgian government and President Saakashvili is a special project of the Bush administration. Those are his words. He said that the U.S. has to choose between saving its prestige over this virtual project or having a real partnership with Russia.

Secretary Rice said that, you know, Russia is working with the U.S. on other issues - not as a favor to the Bush administration, but because it's in Moscow's interest. And as for choosing, she said the U.S. is standing with the democratically president of Georgia.

You know, it's interesting that she's actually going to Georgia, but has no plans at the moment to visit Moscow.

INSKEEP: Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. She's helping us keep track of the situation between Russia and Georgia, and our coverage continues online at npr.org. That's where NPR's Corey Flintoff explores this question, whether Georgia misjudged the amount of American support it could expect. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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