The Russian Bear is back, and the United States doesn't seem to be able to do much about it.
The United States saw trouble coming between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet republic turned nemesis, but didn't have enough leverage, focus or resolve to intervene. Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a specialist on the old Soviet Union, may have misjudged the combustible combination of Russian grievance and ambition.
The Bush administration's assurances of solidarity with a young democracy also may have given Georgia's silver-tongued, U.S.-educated leader a little too much swagger as he picked a playground fight he never could win on his own.
Using a sledgehammer to swat a fly, Russian tanks and bombers widened their assault Monday on Georgia, the closest friend the U.S. has among the slowly democratizing former Soviet republics.
U.S. looked hesitant
Once war began, the U.S. looked hesitant and ineffective, answering tank columns with jawboning by President Bush on the sidelines of the Olympic Games in Beijing and Rice on the phone from a resort vacation.
On Monday, four days into fighting that has killed hundreds, Bush was back in Washington, addressing the crisis in a Rose Garden appearance with reporters.
Russia blithely ignored U.S. and European protests that Moscow sees as hypocritical and that it knows will only go so far. Despite wide condemnation of Russian action as illegitimate, no one was talking about sending forces to help Georgia.
"When one country conquers another that is typically regarded as pretty serious, and the inability to do anything about it is something the United States is not accustomed to," said Stephen Sestanovich, an expert on Russia and Eurasia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Bush has put Moscow on notice that U.S. relations with Russia would suffer if the conflict continued, but Russian leaders know that Washington needs their cooperation on a host of world problems. They know, too, that the American public has no stomach for war in an obscure corner of the globe and that Bush will be out of a job in five months. The two presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have spoken to the crisis, trying to show resolve against Russian adventurism.
Georgia cut in half
Russian forces seized several towns and a military base deep in western Georgia on Monday, opening a second front in the fighting. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said his country had been effectively cut in half.
Saakashvili signed a cease-fire pledge Monday, and at Georgia's request, the U.N. Security Council in New York called an emergency session — the fifth meeting on the fighting in as many days.
In talking points on the conflict obtained by The Associated Press, the Bush administration claims it had no specific advance warning that Georgia would try to retake control of a breakaway border region largely loyal to Russia.
That doesn't mean diplomats, intelligence analysts and others weren't worried about worsening Russian relations with Georgia over the past two years and in particular about the shoving match over ethnic conflicts left over from the Cold War.
Rice went to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to try to calm things down in July, but infuriated Russia with a public endorsement of Georgia's "territorial integrity." Saakashvili used the visit to display his close relationship with Washington, the organizing principle for an imperfectly democratic government that has collected millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
U.S. officials say they gave Saakashvili a strong warning not to put a match to the ethnic tinderboxes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even as Rice and others took Georgia's side in public. Bush backed the Georgian claim when he visited Tbilisi in 2005.
"The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone," Bush said then.
'Blame to go around'
Saakashvili didn't need U.S. permission to send his forces into South Ossetia last week, and he has not suggested that he thought U.S. or NATO warplanes would back him up. Neither he nor his U.S. supporters predicted that Russia would take the conflict this far, threatening full occupation of Georgia and the potential toppling of Saakashvili's government.
"There's blame to go around," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said, referring to Georgian provocation and what the U.S. considers an out-of-bounds Russian response.
Wood defended U.S. actions before and after the conflict began late last week, saying Rice had made scores of telephone calls. A State Department expert on the former Soviet region was dispatched from Washington to the Georgian capital.
Asked what lessons Georgia's neighbors might draw about the value of cozying up to the United States, Wood said the United States will keep appealing for calm.
"The United States is a reliable partner in the world," he said.