By Alister Bull and Jeff Mason
ERIE, Pa./HONOLULU (Reuters) – U.S. presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama warned Russia on Monday of severe, long-term consequences from its conflict with Georgia.
McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona who has made international issues the centerpiece of his campaign for the November 4 election, offered a lengthy discourse on the crisis in the Caucasus for reporters and cameras.
Obama later made a brief appearance in Hawaii, where he is on a family holiday, to caution Russia that its future ties were at stake.
Georgia is a close ally of the United States and has relied on military aid and training from Washington, which has pushed hard for Georgia to become a member of NATO despite strong opposition from Russia.
McCain said Russia appeared intent on toppling Georgia’s pro-Western government rather than returning to the status quo in South Ossetia, which Tbilisi is trying to keep from breaking away.
He called on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to travel to Europe “to establish a common Euro-Atlantic position aimed at ending the war and supporting the independence of Georgia.”
“Russian President (Dmitry) Medvedev and Prime Minister (Vladimir) Putin must understand the severe, long-term negative consequences that their government’s actions will have for Russia’s relationship with the U.S. and Europe,” McCain said.
He urged NATO’s North Atlantic Council to convene an emergency session to demand a ceasefire and begin discussions on both the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to South Ossetia and the implications for NATO’s future relationship with Russia.
Obama repeated his call for Russia to withdraw and said its efforts to join the World Trade Organization should be reviewed.
“We should … convene other international forums to condemn this aggression, to call for an immediate halt to the violence, and to review multilateral and bilateral arrangements with Russia — including Russia’s interest in joining the World Trade Organization,” he told reporters.
“The relationship between Russia and the West is long and complicated. There have been many turning points, for good and for ill. This is another turning point.”
McCain opened his remarks with what might be seen as a subtle dig at Obama for being on holiday.
“Americans wishing to spend August vacationing with their families or watching the Olympics may wonder why their newspapers and television screens are filled with images of war in the small country of Georgia,” he said before launching into a lengthy explanation of Georgia’s recent history.
Both McCain and Obama have said they were in contact with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Obama ratcheted up his criticism of Russia in a written statement from Hawaii on Saturday. On Monday, a statement delivered on the driveway of the beach house he is renting was sharper.
“No matter how this conflict started, Russia has escalated it well beyond the dispute over South Ossetia and has now violated the space of another country,” he said. “There is no possible justification for these attacks.”
Russia and Georgia came into direct conflict over South Ossetia last week after Tbilisi launched an offensive to regain control over the breakaway separatist region.
McCain instantly took a tougher line against Russia than either President George W. Bush or Obama. McCain has charged that the first-term Illinois senator is too naive and inexperienced to be commander-in-chief.
Obama counters that his judgment on major issues like the Iraq war is superior to McCain’s and says a win by the Arizona senator would be the same as a third Bush term.