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West mulls few options in Georgia-Russia crisis

It gingerly considers how to set consequences for Russia and maintain cooperation.

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The notion of an Atlantic alliance with its hands tied has only gained steam since the Russia-Georgia conflict was touched off earlier this month. After Georgian soldiers moved to end a decades-old territorial dispute by attempting to take back the breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian troops pounced on Georgia – where they remain in reduced numbers today.

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Earlier this week, Russia recognized the two regions as independent, further stoking international condemnation and feeding the fears of countries like Ukraine and Poland, an EU member, still mindful of Soviet domination.

But some experts see steps that Western governments and institutions can take to demonstrate to Russia that its actions won't go unchallenged.

"Sending Cheney to Georgia and places jittery over Russia's actions demonstrates the seriousness with which the administration takes this crisis, and it suggests some desperation over the lack of good options for dealing with a very complicated situation," says Wess Mitchell, director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. "But there are nevertheless things the US and the West can do to show Russia that its actions will have consequences."

Among the more symbolic gestures possible, the seven charter members of the Group of Eight industrialized countries can threaten to push Russia out of the club, which Moscow craved joining. On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the original members issued a joint statement "condemning the action of our fellow G8 member," Russia.

The US and NATO can also consider ways to bolster the defenses of new members, such as the Baltic states, and to fortify the militaries of partners in the former Soviet space, Mr. Mitchell says. But they have to be careful not to go too far, he says.

The complications of slapping Russia with consequences have been discussed widely in the context of the Iranian nuclear program, with US officials mindful of a need to keep Russia on board in dealing with that issue. But the repercussions of any consequences could extend far, including to a US-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement reached last year that was hailed as a major accomplishment of the Bush administration.

The agreement, which awaits congressional approval, is frozen as a result of Russia's foray into Georgia. (At least, that's the administration's public stance.) But some US officials argue that the broad goal of nuclear security must move forward and not be dragged down by the separate issue of Russian regional actions.

Says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington: "The public course of action is one of competition and confrontation, but on this [nuclear security] issue, it seems we're still moving quietly towards cooperation."