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The crisis with Russia over Georgia

The New York Times: "Russia escalated its assault on Sunday despite strong diplomatic warnings from Mr. Bush and European leaders, underscoring the limits of Western influence over Russia at a time when the rest of Europe depends heavily on Russia for natural gas and the United States needs Moscow's cooperation if it hopes to curtail what it believes is a nuclear weapons threat from Iran."

More: Earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney expressed a strong warning for Russia. In a telephone conversation with the Georgian president, he said 'that Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community,' a spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, said in a statement released by the White House."

From the New York Times' news analysis of the situation: "As a column of soldiers passed through Gori, a black-robed priest came out of his church and made the sign of the cross again and again. One soldier, his face a mask of exhaustion, cradled a Kalashnikov. 'We killed as many of them as we could,' he said. 'But where are our friends?'"

"It was the question of the day. As Russian forces massed Sunday on two fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United States? When is NATO coming?"

A companion piece: "[T]he war risked becoming a foreign policy catastrophe for the United States, whose image and authority in the region were in question after it had proven unable to assist Georgia or to restrain the Kremlin while the Russian Army pressed its attack."

Bill Kristol -- always a hawk -- seems perplexed at what to pontificate on this issue. "Will the United States put real pressure on Russia to stop? In a news analysis on Sunday, the New York Times reporter Helene Cooper accurately captured what I gather is the prevailing view in our State Department: 'While America considers Georgia its strongest ally in the bloc of former Soviet countries, Washington needs Russia too much on big issues like Iran to risk it all to defend Georgia.' But Georgia, a nation of about 4.6 million, has had the third-largest military presence — about 2,000 troops — fighting along with U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq. For this reason alone, we owe Georgia a serious effort to defend its sovereignty. Surely we cannot simply stand by as an autocratic aggressor gobbles up part of — and perhaps destabilizes all of — a friendly democratic nation that we were sponsoring for NATO membership a few months ago."

So what about the candidate reactions? "The candidates' responses to the crisis were initially very different in tone. Sen. McCain forcefully blamed Russia, a country he has taken a hard stand on in the past. He has called for ejecting Russia from the Group of Eight leading nations and has mocked President George W. Bush's statement that he saw goodness in former Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sen. McCain said that when he looked into Mr. Putin's eyes, he 'saw three letters: K-G-B.'"

"'Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory,' Sen. McCain said Friday morning. He credited Georgia for having called for a cease-fire."

"Sen. Obama's initial response was more measured, not blaming either side. 'Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full-scale war,' he said. Later Friday, Sen. Obama toughened his position, calling for restraint on both sides but blaming Russia for invading its neighbor. Saturday, he went further, saying, 'Russia has escalated the crisis in Georgia through its clear and continued violation of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.'"

"Obama foreign-policy adviser Michael McFaul, an expert on the region at Stanford University, said that at first it wasn't clear that Russia was entirely at fault. 'I just don't think at that point it was useful to start assigning blame. The first thing you need to do is stop the violence,' he said."

By the way, McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, was a lobbyist for Georgia. "But given the rapid escalation of the fighting, and the fact that Georgia is being viewed as a victim of its neighbor's aggression, Mr. Scheunemann's ties to the small nation and its pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili may look less like a weakness and more like a strength in the first foreign-policy crisis of the general election campaign."