Today's Papers

Russian Roulette

All the papers lead with the continuing crisis in the Caucasus, where Russia yesterday stepped up its advance into Georgian territory, opening a second front in the four-day-old war. The Washington Post reports that Russian tank columns left separatist-controlled strongholds and crossed into undisputed Georgian territory, seizing a town and a military base in the west of Georgia and advancing on the central town of Gori. USA Today reports that the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, called for immediate international intervention “to prevent the fall of Georgia.”

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journalboth focus on European and American efforts to adjust to “a new geopolitical game,” presenting Moscow’s aggression as a bid to turn back the clock to a time when Russia’s regional hegemony went unchallenged. In a conference call, a senior U.S. government official explicitly compared the conflict to Soviet-era invasions of Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia. The Los Angeles Timesreports that President Bush gave an unusually blunt address in the Rose Garden, demanding that Russia halt its “dramatic and brutal” invasion; he did not, however, offer any indication of what action he would take if Moscow did not comply.

Russia’s first  military forays into Georgia proper marked a major escalation of the regional conflict, forcing Georgian troops to retreat toward the country’s capital, Tbilisi, and prompting thousands of residents to flee their homes. According to Georgian sources, by late last night invading troops had come within 40 miles of Tbilisi. Russian officials denied the reports, and it remained unclear whether Moscow would withdraw or press on and seek to depose Georgia’s elected leaders.

Moscow’s aggression highlighted splits in the international community: The WSJ reports that the United Nations failed to agree on a draft resolution calling for a cease-fire, while several European nations expressed only muted criticism of Russia’s actions. President Bush, by contrast, issued a robust statement branding the invasion “unacceptable in the 21st century”; still, as the LAT points out, the U.S. has ruled out direct military intervention and is highly unlikely to push for economic sanctions.

Both the NYT and the WSJ front pieces eyeing Vladimir Putin’s role in the crisis. The former Russian president still appears to be pulling the strings in the Kremlin: On the eve of the conflict he met with President Bush in Beijing while his successor, President Dmitri Medvedev, took a holiday cruise along the Volga River. It’s tempting, therefore, to view the conflict solely in terms of Putin’s personal psychodrama: a reassertion of Russian power in a bid to heal old and humiliating wounds. The WSJ’s editorial board goes further, arguing that Putin, drunk on oil wealth, now harbors Napoleonic ambitions for dominance across Eurasia.

Writing in the Post, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev mounts a spirited defense of Russia’s actions: “The Georgian military attacked the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali with multiple rocket launchers designed to devastate large areas,” he writes. “Russia had to respond. To accuse it of aggression against ‘small, defenseless Georgia’ is not just hypocritical but shows a lack of humanity.”

It’s true, of course, that Georgia is far from blameless. The NYT profiles the country’s “headstrong and reckless” president, while the LAT  argues that the war is in part the product of Saakashvili’s failure to weigh the cost of thumbing his nose at his northern neighbor. That reflects poorly on the Bush administration, notes the WSJ: President Bush apparently gave Saakashvili unrealistic expectations about the support he could expect from the West, and State Department officials failed to convince the Georgian leader to show restraint. 

Back home, John McCain is trying to milk the Georgian conflict: The GOP nominee has long advocated a hard-line approach to Moscow and continued to talk tough yesterday. Conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg, writing for the LAT, argues that Obama was caught off-balance by the crisis; in fact, the NYT notes, the Obama and McCain camps remain on virtually the same page, with both candidates calling for the U.N. to order a cease-fire and for an international peacekeeping force to be sent to the disputed region.

Elsewhere, the Post off-leads with word that the Bush administration is planning an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act that would allow federal agencies to decide unilaterally whether or not government actions would harm vulnerable species. The move, reported inside by the other papers, would effectively scrap the independent scientific reviews that have been an integral part of the Act for more than three decades.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe appears to be edging toward a power-sharing deal with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangerai, two months after government-sponsored violence ended any hope of free and fair elections. Details remain hazy, but the WSJ reports that Mugabe said only “little hurdles” remained. Any deal would be a coup for South African premier Thabo Mbeki, who has been mediating between the two sides.

A day after winning Olympic gold in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay—thanks to a “swim for the ages” from teammate Jason Lezak—Michael Phelps shaved almost a second off his own 200-meter freestyle world record en route to his third gold of the Games. With swimming records tumbling across the board, the NYT ponders the ways in which technological advances—streamlined body-suits, less wave-prone pools, nonskid starting blocks—are changing the nature of competitive  swimming. Some things will never change, though: The LAT reports that Phelps’ celebratory dancing, of which we’ll likely be seeing plenty more over the next few days, appears to be genetically hardwired, bearing a remarkable similarity to victory displays seen in chimps and gorillas.