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.
"There are different levels of priority," one French official said. The Sarkozy agreement allows Russia to maintain the "peacekeepers" it has stationed in the disputed regions since the early 1990s, ostensibly to protect them from ethnic Georgians. When hostilities began last week, Russian troops and armor flooded into the enclaves and continued into Georgia proper.
While the Bush administration has demanded that they go home, leaving only the original peacekeepers behind, U.S. and European officials have said privately that they would turn to the question of how many Russians remained in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the troops withdrew from the rest of Georgia. The West, while remaining vague on the question of continued Russian "peacekeeping," has called for international monitors to be placed in the enclaves.
At the United Nations, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin objected to language implicitly recognizing Georgia's borders that was included in a Security Council draft resolution on the conflict.
Churkin said there is "a new reality which poses new problems in terms of maintaining the territorial integrity of Georgia" and added: "We respect the wishes of the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia."
He said any formal decision on security arrangements for the separatist regions should address their final political status. But he made clear that Russia will maintain peacekeepers there for the foreseeable future.
Although Georgia and Russia each assert that the other began the fighting, the Bush administration and its European partners have said that question is immaterial when compared with Russia's "disproportionate" assault on Georgia.
Despite the Bush administration's determination to punish Russia for its Georgian incursion, "the United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," Gates said in a Pentagon news conference. "I see no reason to change that approach today."
He noted that last fall, he and Rice "began what we hoped would be an ongoing and long-term strategic dialogue with the Russian Federation. The expectation was that our two nations, despite our differences, shared areas of common interest where we could work together as real partners."
"Russia's behavior over the past week has called into question the entire premise of that dialogue," Gates said, "and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward, both bilaterally and with NATO."
Gates said the United States has canceled its participation in a multinational naval exercise with Russia that was to begin today, as well as in a U.S.-Canadian-Russian exercise that would have begun next week.
The Pentagon has sent aid-laden C-17 cargo aircraft -- one Wednesday and another yesterday -- to Tblisi. Although Gates left open the possibility that additional U.S. military assets, including naval hospital ships, might be sent to Georgia, he said no decisions will be made until a 12-person military humanitarian-assessment team determines the need and any distribution difficulties.
He said that he expects no confrontation with Russian troops and that Russian commanders are being kept apprised of the locations and activities of U.S. personnel.
Asked about Russia's motives in launching the aggressive attack on Georgia, Gates said: "My view is that the Russians, and I would say principally Prime Minister Putin, is interested in reasserting . . . not only Russia's great power or superpower status, but in reasserting Russia's traditional spheres of influence.
"I think that there is an effort to try and redress what they regard as many of the concessions they feel were forced upon them in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union."
Gates vigorously disputed suggestions that the United States had been caught unaware by the flood of Russian military assets into Georgia on Aug. 6. South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been flashpoints during the month of August over the past several years, he said.
When the situation seemed to worsen late last week, he said, he was in direct contact with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who assured him that Russia had no intention of sending its troops south into Georgia.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.