WASHINGTON - The Russian Bear is back, and the United States does not seem to be able to do much about it.
The United States saw trouble coming between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet republic turned nemesis, but didn't have enough leverage, focus, or resolve to intervene. Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a specialist on the old Soviet Union, may have misjudged the combustible combination of Russian grievance and ambition.
The Bush administration's assurances of solidarity with a young democracy also may have given Georgia's silver-tongued, US-educated leader a little too much swagger as he picked a playground fight he never could win on his own.
Using a sledgehammer to swat a fly, Russian tanks and bombers widened their assault yesterday on Georgia, the closest friend the United States has among the slowly democratizing former Soviet republics.
Once war began, the United States looked hesitant and ineffective, answering tank columns with jawboning by President Bush on the sidelines of the Olympic Games in Beijing and Rice on the phone from a resort vacation.
Yesterday, four days into fighting that has killed hundreds, Bush was back in Washington, and demanded that Russia end a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of violence in Georgia, agree to an immediate cease-fire, and accept international mediation to end the crisis in Georgia.
"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," Bush said.
Despite the tough talk, the president's comments were not backed up by any specific threat of consequences Russia might face if it ignores the warning.
Russia has blithely ignored US and European protests that Moscow sees as hypocritical and that it knows will only go so far. Despite wide condemnation of Russian action as illegitimate, no one was talking about sending forces to help Georgia.
"When one country conquers another that is typically regarded as pretty serious, and the inability to do anything about it is something the United States is not accustomed to," said Stephen Sestanovich, a specialist on Russia and Eurasia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Bush has put Moscow on notice that US relations with Russia would suffer if the conflict continued, but Russian leaders know that Washington needs their cooperation on a host of world problems. They know, too, that the American public has no stomach for war in an obscure corner of the globe and that Bush will be out of a job in five months. The two presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have spoken to the crisis, trying to show resolve against Russian adventurism.
Russian forces seized several towns and a military base deep in western Georgia yesterday, opening a second front in the fighting. President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia said his country had been effectively cut in half.
Saakashvili signed a cease-fire pledge yesterday, and at Georgia's request, the UN Security Council in New York called an emergency session - the fifth meeting on the fighting in as many days.
In talking points on the conflict obtained by the Associated Press, the Bush administration claims it had no specific advance warning that Georgia would try to retake control of a breakaway border region largely loyal to Russia.
That does not mean diplomats, intelligence analysts, and others weren't worried about worsening Russian relations with Georgia over the past two years and in particular about the shoving match over ethnic conflicts left over from the Cold War.
Rice went to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to try to calm things down in July, but infuriated Russia with a public endorsement of Georgia's "territorial integrity." Saakashvili used the visit to display his close relationship with Washington, the organizing principle for an imperfectly democratic government that has collected millions of dollars in US aid.
US officials say they gave Saakashvili a strong warning not to put a match to the ethnic tinderboxes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even as Rice and others took Georgia's side in public. Bush backed the Georgian claim when he visited Tbilisi in 2005.
"The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone," Bush said then.
Saakashvili didn't need US permission to send his forces into South Ossetia last week, and he has not suggested he thought US or NATO warplanes would back him up. Neither Saakashvili nor his US supporters predicted that Russia would take the conflict this far, threatening full occupation of Georgia and the potential toppling of Saakashvili's government.