BEIJING – President Bush on Monday sharply criticized Moscow's harsh military crackdown in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, saying the violence is unacceptable and Russia's response is disproportionate.
The United States is waging an all-out campaign to get 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 Sports, said, "I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia." He said he did so directly to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who's here for the Olympics, and by phone to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.
On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney told Georgia's pro-American president that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States," Cheney's office reported.
While Georgia said its troops have retreated from South Ossetia and are honoring a cease-fire, Russia disputed the claim, and U.S. officials said Moscow was only expanding its blitz into new areas.
"I was very firm with Vladimir Putin," Bush said. "Hopefully this will get resolved peacefully."
Cheney spoke Sunday afternoon with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, Cheney 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 attacks continue.
A Russian official said more than 2,000 people had been killed in South Ossetia since Friday; the figure could not be confirmed independently.
The president was to end his weeklong Asia trip by attending a baseball game and other events Monday at the Beijing Olympics. The Beijing stay was mostly for fun and games, but the fast-moving conflict in Georgia has grabbed his attention.
Bush also used the Olympic visit to press President Hu Jintao over China's jailing of politicial and religious activists. In the NBC interview, he was asked if the message is getting through.
"It's hard to tell," Bush replied. "He listened politely. I can't read his mind, but I do know that every time I met with him I pressed the point."
At the Olympics, Bush managed time for a couple of marquee sporting events. With his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and other members of his family, he cheered from the stands as American Michael Phelps claimed the first of an expected string of gold medals by smashing his own world record in the 400-meter individual medley.
"God, what a thrill to cheer for you!" Bush told Phelps afterward.
In the NBC interview, Bush voiced concern about doping scandals that have hit both the Olympics and baseball. "We don't want adults sending mixed messages to children, that it's OK to shoot up drugs in order to become a star, because it's not OK," Bush said.
Pressing international mediation between Russia and Georgia, Bush reached out Sunday to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who heads the European Union. The two agreed on the need for a cease-fire and respect for Georgia's integrity, White House spokesman Gordon 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," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "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 air strikes 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 U.S. 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, which was the third-largest contributor of coalition forces in Iraq after the U.S. and Britain.
The risk of the conflict setting off a wider war increased when Russian-supported separatists in another breakaway region of Georgia, Abkhazia, launched air and artillery strikes on Georgian troops to drive them out of a small part of the province they control.
Also, Ukraine warned Russia it could bar Russian navy ships from returning to their base in the Crimea because of their deployment to Georgia's coast.
Asked about the possibility of sending the U.S. military or other aid to Georgia, Jeffrey said, "Right now our focus is on working with both sides, with the Europeans and with a whole variety of international institutions and organizations to get the fighting to stop."
Levin, too, did not see the chance of U.S. military involvement, though he said the U.S. needs to make clear to Russia that its action "is way out of line."