WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham said Friday that his visit to Georgia, Ukraine and Poland, at Sen. John McCain's behest, persuaded him that the United States and its allies must take tough steps to prevent further Russian military aggression against its smaller neighbors.
Graham, a South Carolina Republican, called on NATO to "stop war-gaming on tables in Brussels" and to begin military exercises in Europe to show its commitment to protecting member nations.
"I found a Russia on the move, a Russia that is trying to intimidate its neighbors who are Democratic in nature," Graham said. "This (Georgia) conflict is not about a border dispute. It's about the desire by Russia to send a signal to its democratic neighbors that Russia is a dominant power."
Poland is a NATO member, and the United States backs Georgia's effort to join the trans-Atlantic organization.
Graham was joined on the trip by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut.
The two men, McCain's closest Senate friends, met with the leaders of Ukraine and Georgia on Wednesday, then conferred with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Thursday before returning to Washington.
Graham and Lieberman briefed McCain in a call from Warsaw.
"I told (McCain) that there was unity in Georgia, Russia is doing a lot of damage, the Poles and Ukraine see this as a very big step in the wrong direction by Russia," Graham said. "Basically, that your view, John, of Russia being up to no good is correct."
Graham expressed skepticism over the start Friday of an apparent pullback by Russian troops in Georgia, under a cease-fire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood confirmed movement of some Russian forces from Georgia, but he accused Moscow of violating the deal by setting up checkpoints and a security zone around the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had vowed to remove his troops from Georgia by late Friday, but a top Russian military commander said the pullout would take 10 days to complete.
Diplomats and analysts say there's little the West can do — short of going to war with Russia — to check its military muscle-flexing in the Caucasus.
Graham, though, said the United States and its allies should accelerate Georgia's bid to join NATO, reconsider Russia's membership in the G-8 group of advanced industrialized nations and freeze Moscow's campaign to enter the World Trade Organization.
Russia's move into Georgia, Graham said, has isolated it diplomatically and gained little support from other countries beyond Belarus and Cuba.
Graham said that Russia, a major producer of oil and natural gas, wanted to seize control of an energy pipeline that went from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, through Georgia to Turkey.
"We cannot sit on the sidelines and allow energy supplies to be controlled by Russia," Graham said. "We can't allow these young democracies to be intimidated by Russia."
Graham said he'd lead efforts in Congress next month to pass a $1 billion-plus package of emergency aid for Georgia and for the Senate to ratify a new missile-defense treaty with Poland.
He rejected Russia's claims that the treaty, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed Wednesday in Warsaw, threatens Russia.
The senator also rejected Russia's assertion that Georgia started the military conflict by attacking South Ossetia, a province with many ethnic Russian residents.
"It is clear that the Russians tried to create this provocation," Graham said. "They were looking for this opening. They're trying to lure these young democracies into a fight."
Ukrainian leaders told Graham and Lieberman that the Russian government has issued passports to 75,000 ethnic Russians who are living in the former Soviet republic, following a model of similar moves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, both of which are heavily populated by Russians.
"We have to be bold now," Graham said. "We have to implement this treaty with Poland. We have to beef up NATO in the east (of Europe). We have to show the Russians they can't be part of the international community by behaving this way."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008