BEIJING - President Bush sharply criticized Moscow's harsh military crackdown in the former Soviet republic of Georgia today, saying the violence is unacceptable and Russia's response is disproportionate.
The United States is waging an all-out campaign to press Russia to halt its retaliation against Georgia for trying to take control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Bush, in an interview with NBC, said, "I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia."
Yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney said that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered," and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States.
The crisis over South Ossetia appeared to ebb as Georgian troops began retreating and honoring a cease-fire, an assertion Russia disputed. US officials said Moscow was only broadening its retaliation against Georgia for trying to take control of the region.
The sheer scope of Russia's military response has the Bush administration deeply worried. Yesterday, Russia expanded its bombing blitz in areas of Georgia not central to the fighting.
Cheney spoke yesterday afternoon with President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia, Cheney's press secretary, Lee Ann McBride, said. "The vice president expressed the United States' solidarity with the Georgian people and their democratically elected government in the face of this threat to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," McBride said.
Asked to explain Cheney's phrase "must not go unanswered," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "It means it must not stand." White House officials refused to indicate what recourse the United States might have if the military onslaught continues.
Bush, pressing for international mediation, reached out yesterday to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who heads the European Union. The two agreed on the need for a cease-fire and a respect for Georgia's integrity, Johndroe said.
In Washington, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the United States must work closely with Europe in condemning Russia's actions.
"We cannot just go out alone on this and talk and act unilaterally. We don't have much impact, I believe, in terms of our unilateral declarations anymore with the administration's approach to the world," said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat. "We've got to stand together with European allies."
Georgia, whose troops have been trained by American soldiers, began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia overnight Friday, launching heavy rocket and artillery fire and airstrikes that pounded the provincial capital, Tskhinvali. In response, Russia launched overwhelming artillery shelling and air attacks on Georgian troops.
"We're alarmed by this entire situation, and every escalatory step is a further problem," deputy national security adviser Jim Jeffrey told reporters.
The US military began flying 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq after Georgia recalled the soldiers following the outbreak of fighting with Russia. The decision was a timely payback for the former Soviet republic that has been a staunch US supporter and agreed to send troops to Iraq as part of the US-led coalition. Georgia was the third-largest contributor of coalition forces after the United States and Britain, and most of its troops were stationed near the Iranian border in southeastern Iraq.