- The Washington Times - Friday, August 15, 2008

The widening gap between the United States and Russia expanded further Thursday as formerly communist Poland sought formal U.S. protection and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates threatened the Kremlin with “consequences” for its actions in Georgia.

Heightening tensions between the White House and the Kremlin resembled a 21st-century version of the Cold War, with Washington and Moscow trading diplomatic barbs and implied military threats over the Aug. 7-8 invasion of Georgia by Russian troops.

Poland, a former Soviet Union satellite, Thursday signed a deal to host 10 American interceptor missiles to shoot down offensive missiles, a deal fiercely opposed by Russia. The pact included what Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called a “mutual agreement” that each country would defend the other in case of attack.

In another move certain to anger Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko denied Russian warships deployed near Georgia the right to dock in their home port of Sevastopol on Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula without first obtaining permission.

Mr. Gates questioned the Bush administration’s long-standing policy of relying on personal trust between leaders such as President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to resolve international disputes.

“I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities,” Mr. Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.

As recently as this week, Mr. Bush has talked about his “good relationship” with Mr. Putin, and said he does not view relationships with other leaders in terms of “leverage.”

Speaking of his relationship with China’s leaders, he said he has sought to engage in “constructive engagement where you can find common areas … but also be in a position where they respect you enough to listen to your views.”

Mr. Gates warned that Russia’s invasion of Georgia had damaged its standing in the world and put its relations with the U.S. at serious risk.

Moscow and Washington exchanged barbs in multiple press conferences throughout the day, and the fate of a two-day-old cease-fire appeared uncertain amid conflicting reports from the Georgian city of Gori, best known as the birthplace of Josef Stalin.

A large-scale Russian unit of 150 armored vehicles headed out of the western city of Senaki toward Kutaisi, which, like Gori, lies on the main east-west route that bisects the tiny Caucasian country.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the world should “forget about any talk about Georgia’s territorial integrity,” indicating that the Kremlin considered two pro-Russian breakaway enclaves independent of Georgia - not unlike the recent Western decision to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state in the Balkans.

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 on how the Bush administration views Russia’s actions in Georgia, a tiny country of about 4 million people on Russia’s southwest border.

“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,” he said.

Though Mr. Gates did not elaborate, the Bush administration is considering steps that include ousting Russia from the Group of Eight leading industrial nations, barring Russia from joining the World Trade Organization and suspending or abolishing a council inside NATO that is devoted to relations with Russia.

Some even suggested boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, a far-fetched idea given the success of the present Olympics in China after Beijing broke its promise to lift human-rights restrictions during the games.

The White House did not rule out any 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.

“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,” Mr. Gates said.

“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,” he said.

Mr. Gates also indicated that he thinks Mr. Putin, who until May was Russia’s president, is still directing the Kremlin’s actions as prime minister, 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.”

Former satellites such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria broke from the Soviet Union in 1989 and have since become members of the NATO alliances.

The Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, and former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also joined NATO.

At a recent NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia were denied a series of protocols that would have allowed them to eventually join the Western alliance - primarily because of objections from Germany, which feared Russian anger.

Russia has consistently resisted NATO’s expansion, fearing it is the primary target in the post-Cold-War world. Moreover, attempts by Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance are a key factor in the present conflict.

Russia accuses Georgia of shelling ethnic South Ossetians and retaliated by invading Georgia.

Two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have strong pro-Russian contingents.

As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met with leaders of the two regions in Moscow on Thursday, 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.”

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 longtime 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.

He declined to say that the Kremlin planned an 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, 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.

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.

Reports from Warsaw also indicated a permanent U.S. military base would 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.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has complained about the initial U.S. response to Russia’s aggression, saying it was too weak and signaled to the Kremlin that it could act with impunity.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bush sent three C-17 military planes to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia and dispatched Miss Rice on a diplomatic mission.

Miss Rice met Thursday in France with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who on Tuesday mediated the cease-fire agreement between the Georgians and the Russians.

After leaving France, Miss Rice was headed to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, to meet with Mr. Saakashvili. She will fly to the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Friday night and brief Mr. Bush Saturday morning.

Explosions were heard Thursday in Gori, which is strategically located 15 miles below South Ossetia and 60 miles west of Tbilisi.

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.

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 hear… they need to be checked out.”

She added that one of the things U.S. officials were scrutinizing was how much Georgian military equipment and infrastructure was being destroyed by Russian forces.

Kelly Hearn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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