Moscow's announcement Tuesday that it would halt its five-day invasion of Georgia came within 24 hours of President Bush's demand for an end to this "brutal" Russian offensive. Did an implied US threat make the difference? There's one way to find out.
In his statement Monday, Mr. Bush drew a bright line around what matters most to the US in Georgia – and it's not the oil pipeline that runs through this strategic nation. Nor is it Georgia's claim to the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are the size of Puerto Rico. Neither is it forcing Russia to accept yet another country near its border as a NATO member.
No, it was with poignant symbolism that Bush made his main point in the Rose Garden of the White House. He insisted that Georgia's 2003 "rose revolution" not be overthrown and a Russian puppet installed either by force or coercion. He warned against the apparent Russian attempt to depose Georgia's "duly elected government."
Bush wasn't just guessing. The US envoy to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Security Council on Sunday that Russia's UN ambassador said that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "must go."
But it is Russian troops that must go from Georgia proper. And the US needs to act swiftly to bolster this young democracy with all the aid, trade, and other "soft power" that it needs to flourish as an independent state, not a pawn to Russia's neo-imperial ambitions.
This latest attempt by Moscow to restore its prestige and power cannot come at the expense of democracy and freedom in Georgia. The West can compromise with Russia on many military and energy issues, such as placement for American defense systems against Iranian missiles or transit pipelines for Caspian petroleum.
It can let Russia claim outsized pieces of the Arctic seabed for oil rights or conduct aggressive military training exercises near Europe. It can even wink while Vladimir Putin plays games to keep himself in power, further eroding his country's own faltering democracy.
But Russia's attempt to intimidate Georgians into abandoning their elected president is not an option, despite Mr. Saakashvili's miscalculation last week in asserting authority in the two disputed territories.
In 1996, President Clinton took a similar stand against an attempted putsch by a big power against a small democratic nation. After China launched intimidating "test" missiles toward Taiwan to influence an election on the island country, Mr. Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to the area. It was an unmistakable signal of US resolve on behalf of democracy.
Bush need not send fighting forces to Georgia – nor can he at this moment – but he, along with Europe, should help its economy and prop up its democratic institutions. And such a response is something that both Barack Obama and John McCain could surely support.
With strong US backing, Georgia can better negotiate with Moscow in resolving disputes. Russia says it won't talk to Saakashvili, but he is the elected leader.
If Bush's bright line in defending Georgia's democracy did force a Russian drawdown, Moscow will also talk to the Georgian leader.