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U.S. has little leverage in fight

WASHINGTON — Even as it accused Russia of using ”disproportionate“ force in the conflict over Georgia's rebel South Ossetia province, the United States on Saturday found itself with few diplomatic or military options to deter Moscow's ferocious air and ground assault.

In fact, most of the key cards, including the power to veto any United Nations action, were held by Russia, which appeared to be using the crisis to ram home to the United States and its allies that it will not accept further expansion of NATO. Both Georgia and the former Soviet republic of Ukraine are seeking to join the alliance.

The Russian invasion ”sends a message to all of the countries in the former Soviet space that Russia is resurgent and is willing to flex its muscles,“ said David Philips, an analyst with the Atlantic Council.

”This is Russia's assertion of power,“ said retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, a former top NATO commander.

President Bush, in Beijing for the Olympics, said U.S. officials were trying to arrange a cease-fire in contacts with Russian and Georgian officials. He urged Moscow to halt airstrikes outside South Ossetia, the mountainous enclave that Georgian forces moved to seize Thursday from separatists backed by Moscow.

”Georgia is a sovereign nation, and its territorial integrity must be respected,“ Bush said. ”We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops. We call for an end to the Russian bombings.

”The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict. They mark a dangerous escalation of the conflict,“ Bush said.

Speaking in Washington in a conference call with reporters on condition of anonymity, a senior administration official said Russia's response to Georgia's move on South Ossetia ”has been far disproportionate from whatever threat Russia was citing.“

But U.S. calls for a truce, which were echoed by the European Union, appeared to have little impact.

State-run media quoted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as defending Russia's intervention as ”totally legitimate“ and accusing Georgia of committing ”genocide.“

He said Georgia wanted to join NATO in order ”to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures.“

Putin's comments reflect Russia's longstanding anger over NATO expansion, U.S. support for the admission of Georgia and Ukraine to the alliance, and the Bush administration's plan to build missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Russia is also still fuming over NATO's intervention against Serbia during its 1999 crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo, and U.S. and European recognition earlier this year of Kosovo's independence over the Kremlin's objections.

Envoys from the United States, EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional conflict resolution organization, were being sent to Georgia as part of a diplomatic push to end the fighting.

But beyond diplomacy and high-level statements, there appeared little the United States and its allies could do, such as extending NATO combat air patrols to Georgia as they were in 2002 to deter Russian interference in Lithuania.

”There are already Russian aircraft over Georgia, so the chances of direct engagement (between Russian and NATO aircraft) is very high,“ said Clark.

”If you are in Moscow and you are looking at the tools that the U.S., NATO and the EU have, what are they?“ asked a former senior State Department official who requested anonymity to speak more freely. ”Nobody is going to send troops, so you are going to get away with it.“

Some experts worried that Russia would not halt its offensive until it drove Georgian troops out of South Ossetia and another Moscow-backed separatist enclave, Abkhazia, and forced the pro-U.S. government of President Mikhail Saakashvili out in favor of a pro-Moscow leadership.

Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should ”get off the phone and onto a plane and make it completely clear to Moscow that our relationship depends on what they do from here on out.“

But Bush must walk a careful line with the Kremlin, whose cooperation the United States requires on a range of pressing issues.