The White House is denying a front-page story in the New York Times yesterday (September 9th) claiming that the Bush Administration, "after considerable internal debate, had decided not to take direct punitive action against Russia for its conflict with Georgia." According to the Times article, co-authored by Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers, the Administration has concluded "that it has litle leverage if it acts unilaterally and that it would be better off pressing for a chorus of international criticism to be led by Europe."
I raised this point at the daily White House press briefing yesterday, pointing out that backing away from earlier threats such as vetoing Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a reveral from some of the original rhetoric that came out of the Administration immediately after the Georgia invasion last month. What led to this change of position on Russia, I asked Press Secretary Dana Perino.
"I found that criticism somewhat curious," replied Perino, "because it came on the morning after the President withdrew from the 1-2-3 agreement, which was something that was a bilateral agreement that we had worked out with Russia in April. We did that with regret, but we did it because of Russia’s unacceptable recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent of Georgia. And unfortunately, it’s the Russians actions that led to this and Russia is increasingly finding itself isolated. And we will continue to work with our European partners and our international allies to decide how to move forward in a relationship with Russia."
That was a little vague for me, so I pressed on: "So those reports are exaggerated about blocking Russia from the WTO?" I asked Perino.
"I think everybody is reevaluating how we move forward," the President’s top spokeswoman told me, "but I just find that the criticism that the President of the United States doesn’t want to take any action against Russia curious, given that it came on the very same day that the President withdrew from the 1-2-3 agreement."
Andrei Sitov of TASS later weighed in, citing " the quotes in today’s New York Times from Secretary Gates about calibrated response and all of that — are these reflective of the overall approach, the White House approach?"
Perino replied that "what that article talked about was a mature, responsible, comprehensive review of how we decide to move forward with Russia. We’re obviously extremely disappointed in the Russians. We expect them to live up to their commitments and to remove their forces, and to return to the status quo ante of August 6th."