Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on Thursday warned that Russia’s invasion of Georgia has put their relations with the U.S. at serious risk, and said the Kremlin should be punished by Western nations.
Poland, meanwhile, reacted to Russia’s invasion of a fellow former communist bloc country by finalizing a deal with the U.S. to host a missile defense system on their soil.
Fierce language continued to come from the Kremlin and the White House, and a two-day old cease-fire still appeared to be uncertain as Russian troops remained on Georgian soil and moved deeper into the country.
Related stories: Bush sends aid to occupied Georgia and U.S. may have misjudged Russia
TWT Editorial: Does American foreign policy have teeth?
A large-scale Russian armored unit of 150 vehicles headed out of the western city of Senaki toward the Kutaisi, the country’s second-largest city, Georgian officials said Thursday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the world should “forget about any talk about Georgia’s territorial integrity,” indicating that the Kremlin would try to claim two disputed regions in Georgia’s north that were at the origins of this conflict.
White House press secretary Dana Perino called Mr. Lavrov’s talk “bluster,” and said the Bush administration would ignore it.
But it was Mr. Gates’ comments during a Pentagon press conference that offered the most expansive, compelling insight to date into how the Bush administration views Russia’s actions in Georgia, a tiny country of just over 4 million people on Russia’s southwest border.
“My personal view is that there need to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state,” Mr. Gates said.
“In terms of international institutions, in terms of cooperation with Russia, in terms of the overall relationships between many nations and Russia … there may be consequences.”
Some of these possible consequences include dissolving the Group of Eight, barring Russia from joining the World Trade Organization, organizing a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and suspending or abolishing a council inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization devoted to relations with Russia.
The White House did not rule out any of these sanctions, but said they would be considered at a later date.
Mr. Gates pointed to a “strategic dialogue” begun with Russia last fall by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and himself, and said that “Russia’s behavior over the past week has called into question the entire premise of that dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward.”
“If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come,” Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Gates also indicated that he believes Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was until May the country’s president, is still directing the Kremlin’s actions, and has a vision of restoring Russia to superpower status.
“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,” Mr. Gates said.
“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 1990s, in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Several former Soviet bloc countries broke away in the 90’s, as Russia’s economy hit bottom and their standing in the world declined dramatically.
The week-old conflict between Russia and the former Soviet bloc territory of Georgia is over two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that are claimed by both countries and have strong pro-Russian contingents.
As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met with leaders of the two regions in Moscow, Mr. Lavrov told reporters, “It is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state.”
After Mr. Medvedev met with leaders of the two disputed regions, he said that if the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia indicate a desire to leave Georgia, Russia will “not only support these decisions but will guarantee them.”
The White House attempted to swipe Mr. Lavrov’s statement off the table.
“I consider that to be bluster coming form the foreign minister of Russia, and we will ignore it,” Mrs. Perino said.
In responding to a Georgian attack on Russian troops in South Ossetia last week, the Kremlin’s military humiliated Georgian forces in fighting that killed at least 2,000 and displaced around 100,000.
Mr. Gates said Russia’s response was intended as a “message to all of the parts of the former Soviet Union, as a signal about trying to integrate with the West and move outside of the long-time Russian sphere of influence.”
“It seemed to me that the Russians were prepared to take advantage of an opportunity and did so very aggressively,” he said, though he declined to say that the Kremlin planned their incursion in advance.
The Polish missile defense deal, signed when it was, was a clear indication that former Communist bloc countries are uneasy about Russia’s intentions.
The deal, which was reached after 18 months of negotiations, will place 10 missile interceptors in Poland, which will be paired with a radar system in the Czech Republic. Russia has vehemently opposed the deal, seeing it as a threat.
But the White House, despite the timing of the announcement, continued to insist the interceptors and radar are to prevent an attack from the Middle East.
“In no way is the president’s plan for missile defense aimed at Russians,” Mrs. Perino said.
But the agreement also includes what Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called a “mutual agreement” that each country will defend the other in case of attack, and reports from Warsaw indicated a permanent U.S. military base would also be installed in Poland.
Mr. Tusk clearly indicated that he finalized the agreement based on what has happened over the last week in Georgia.
“Poland and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at some point later it is no good when assistance comes to dead people. Poland wants to be in alliances where assistance comes in the very first hours of knock on wood any possible conflict,” Mr. Tusk said.
Georgia’s own president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has complained about the initial U.S. response to Russia’s aggression, saying it was too weak and signaled to the Kremlin that they could act with impunity.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush sent three C-17 military planes to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia, and dispatched Ms. Rice on a diplomatic mission.
Ms. Rice met Thursday in France with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who on Tuesday mediated the cease-fire agreement between the Georgians and the Russians.
After leaving France, Ms. Rice was head to Tblisi, Georgia’s capital, to meet with Mr. Shaakashvili. She will then fly to the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Friday night and brief Mr. Bush Saturday morning.
Explosions were heard Thursday in the central Georgian city of Gori, which is strategically located on the country’s main east-west road, 15 miles below South Ossetia and 60 miles west of Tblisi.
Russian troops occupied the city on Wednesday, violating the cease-fire agreement, but there were conflicting reports about whether Kremlin forces were leaving on Thursday or not.
But at a midday Pentagon briefing, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russian forces were beginning to pull back from Gori.
“We see them generally complying and moving back into a position where they can start to make their exit in an orderly fashion,” Gen. Cartwright said.
Mr. Bush visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on Thursday to be briefed by intelligence analysts about developments on the ground in Georgia.
“There are some reports that things have quieted down and then you do hear of some flare ups,” Mrs. Perino said. “What you have is a rural area in many cases and a lot of equipment that looks similar. So some of the reports you hearthey need to be checked out.”
She added one of the things U.S. officials were scrutinizing was how much Georgian military equipment and infrastructure was being destroyed by Russian forces, in an attempt to cripple the young democracy and complicate its attempts to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which exists to counter Russian influence in the region.
“Equipment is going to be critical. They’ve lost a lot of it,” Mrs. Perino said.