Russian Relations In Doubt, Gates Says

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it would be "impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree . . . that they can be forced back into the Georgian state."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it would be "impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree . . . that they can be forced back into the Georgian state." (By Alexander Zemlianichenko -- Associated Press)
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

Russian behavior in Georgia has "called into question the entire premise" of relations between Washington and Moscow, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday, even as the Bush administration appeared willing to let Russia take its time removing its forces from disputed areas inside the former Soviet republic.

Gates reported a sharp drop in Russian military activities and said troops seemed to be positioning themselves to depart Georgia proper, toward the separatist, pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He said a U.S. military humanitarian-assessment team that arrived Wednesday will take 48 hours to determine how best to distribute aid.

But U.S. officials acknowledged late in the day that they were uncertain whether any significant Russian movement was underway.

As fears of an ongoing Russian offensive on Georgian cities waned, attention shifted to the future of the disputed areas. Russia maintained that the events of the past week had fundamentally redrawn Georgia's borders and seemed to dare the West to do anything about it.

Speaking at the Kremlin with the separatist leaders of the two regions beside him, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov advised reporters to "forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity." It would be "impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," he said.

Gates emphasized that U.S. military involvement in the conflict will be restricted to humanitarian aid. "I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation," he said at a Pentagon briefing. "Is that clear enough?"

But Russia will be punished in other ways, he said, as the United States reviews its bilateral relationship, and because other countries near Russia's borders in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have "a higher incentive to stand with us now than they did before, now that they have seen what the Russians have done in Georgia."

As evidence, administration officials pointed to Poland's agreement yesterday, after much hesitation, to allow a U.S. missile-interceptor base to be stationed within its borders.

"We have crossed the Rubicon," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said as representatives from the two governments initialed the accord in Warsaw. In exchange, U.S. officials said, the administration agreed to supply Poland with a U.S. Patriot antimissile battery. While U.S. officials emphasized that the U.S. antimissile system would be directed toward Iran -- not Russia -- the Poles had made clear that they wanted the Patriots as protection against possible Russian aggression in the future.

A tentative, French-brokered peace agreement between Moscow and Tblisi -- applauded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday during a visit to President Nicolas Sarkozy in the south of France -- calls for international talks on how to secure the Georgian enclaves. "The United States stands strongly . . . for the territorial integrity of Georgia," Rice said as she prepared to fly to Tblisi for a show of solidarity with the Georgian government.

President Bush also spoke of the U.S. commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity after a briefing at CIA headquarters. Bush, who had postponed until today his departure for a vacation at his Texas ranch, said Rice will visit him there Saturday to report on her trip.

But U.S. and French officials said their first priorities are a cease-fire and the movement of Russian troops away from Georgian cities and transportation routes.

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