WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday accused Russia of using military action to punish Georgia for being a Western ally and said Moscow could face serious consequences for years to come.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out using U.S. military force in Georgia, but said the Pentagon would review all aspects of its relations with Russia’s military.
Gates, the most experienced Russia expert in the top ranks of the Bush administration, said Moscow’s actions had “profound implications for our security relationship going forward, both bilaterally and with NATO.”
“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,” Gates, a former CIA director and Soviet expert at the intelligence agency, told reporters at the Pentagon.
“My personal view is that there need to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state.”
He did not specify consequences but said other countries would now look at Russia “through a different set of lenses.”
Fighting between Russian and Georgian forces began last week after Georgia tried to regain control of the pro-Russian separatist province of South Ossetia and Russia launched a massive counter-offensive.
Both sides have agreed to a French-brokered cease-fire. Russian troops remain in Georgia but the Pentagon said it appeared they were withdrawing toward South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Russian breakaway region.
U.S. President George W. Bush has sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to France to consult on efforts to end the conflict and Tbilisi to show U.S. support for Georgia, following criticism that Washington’s first response was lacklustre.
Bush received an intelligence briefing on the conflict during a four-hour visit to the CIA headquarters on Thursday. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to comment on the briefing but said “over the past 24 hours, we’ve seen that the violence has died down.”
Gates said there had been an exchange of fire between Georgian and South Ossetian forces every August since 2004 but this year Russia “very aggressively” took advantage to make a point that went far beyond that dispute.
Russia’s intention was “to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West economically, and politically, and in security arrangements,” Gates said.
“I think that the Russians’ further message was 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,” he said.
The United States has sent military C-17 cargo planes with aid supplies to Georgia and is considering sending U.S. Navy hospital ships. But Gates said the U.S. military’s mission was limited to humanitarian operations.
“I don’t see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation,” he said.
“The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia. I see no reason to change that approach today,” he said.
Gates said Washington did not want another Cold War and had been restrained in its dealings with Russia despite what he said was increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Moscow.
Gates said he had spoken to his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov on Friday to urge restraint and Serdyukov had told him “the Russians had no intention of going into Georgia.”
The U.S. military has already cancelled a naval exercise with Russia that was meant to begin this week and Gates said it also had called off another exercise, Vigilant Eagle, involving Russian and Canadian forces, due to have begun on August 20.
U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt said Georgia’s economy was well placed to weather the crisis, and other countries and global institutions were ready to help.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria; editing by Mohammad Zargham