WASHINGTON President Bush is poised to punish Moscow for its invasion of Georgia by canceling a once-celebrated deal for civilian nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Russia.
With relations between the two nations in a nearly Cold War-like freeze over Russia's actions against its neighbor last month, planning is under way at the White House for the largely symbolic move by Bush, according to senior administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision was not yet final. Action could come quickly, within days at the most, and officials see no need to wait until Vice President Dick Cheney returns next Wednesday from an overseas trip that includes stops in three former Soviet republics.
Withdrawing the agreement from Capitol Hill would have little actual impact, as the deal very likely would not gain approval during Bush's presidency.
But taking the overt and public step of pulling it would be intended to send a message to Russia and the world that its actions in Georgia last month are not acceptable and will not go unanswered.
It would require a statement by Bush to Congress that the deal is "no longer in the national security interests" of the United States. A future president could reverse that and send the agreement back to Congress.
Signed in May by the two nations, the administration originally presented the deal as a landmark breakthrough.
It represented a significant reversal in policy for the U.S. on cooperation with Russia on nuclear issues. It would give the U.S. access to state-of-the-art Russian nuclear technology and clear the way for Russia to establish itself as a lucrative center for the import and storage of spent nuclear fuel from American-supplied reactors around the world. Such a deal was seen as crucial to boosting relations with Russia, and to fulfilling Bush's vision of increasing civilian nuclear energy use worldwide as a way to combat rising energy demands and climate change.
But key lawmakers were suspicious of it even before the disastrous Russia-Georgia war.
Some feared it would undermine efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program, because of Russia's extensive business and energy including nuclear ties with Tehran. That has so far prevented a move to approve the deal, and now there isn't enough time left in the fall legislative calendar for the required review period to run out and have the agreement take effect without congressional action.
After years of tensions between Russia and Georgia, the recent fighting began Aug. 7 when Georgia's military tried to re-establish control over its breakaway province of South Ossetia. Russia joined the battle, brutally repelled the Georgian offensive and then pushed deep into Georgia proper, where many of its forces remain.
Both sides signed a cease-fire, but Russia has ignored its requirement for all forces to return to prewar positions.
Administration officials determined almost immediately that Russia must suffer some consequences for its actions and wanted to take punitive measures in concert with Europe. But they have been frustrated at the lack of similar resolve among allies, who have offered condemnation of Russia but little else.
If Bush decides against pulling the deal, there are other penalty options available.
The administration could insist that Russia continue to be quietly left out of any discussions among the elite Group of Eight nations, essentially denying Russia membership in the club of major industrialized democracies without actually kicking it out.
The United States also could sell sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank military hardware to Georgia.
A $1 billion economic recovery package for Georgia that Bush announced Wednesday and which puts the tiny, impoverished nation in the top tier of U.S foreign aid recipients does not include any military aid. But the U.S. had been helping the Georgian military modernize and U.S. officials have said it is likely that more military assistance will be forthcoming at some point to help the badly routed Georgian forces rebuild again.
Moscow has greeted such talk with anger, already accusing the U.S. of instigating or even helping Georgia make its ill-fated incursion into South Ossetia.
Among the most aggressive moves in Washington's potential arsenal are withdrawing its support for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization or trying to strip Russia of the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, now scheduled to be held in the Black Sea town of Sochi, near the border with Georgia. These options have been all but rejected as too harsh.