WASHINGTON — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday ruled out the use of US military force in Georgia but warned Russia it will damage relations with Washington for years to come if Moscow does not pull back its forces.
Russia's behavior in Georgia had "profound implications for our security relationship going forward, not only bilaterally but with NATO," 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 at a Pentagon news conference.
But Gates also made clear that the United States has no intention to be drawn into the conflict militarily, and that the consequences Russia faces will be in its broader relations with the United States and the world.
"I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation," Gates 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.
However, the world would look at Russia "through a different set of lenses" in the wake of its actions in Georgia, Gates said.
"The days and months to come will determine the future course of U.S.-Russian relations," he told a Pentagon news conference.
"But, by the same token, my personal view is that there needs to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state."
Gates said the first objective was to get the Russian forces out of Georgia proper and back into the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and then work out a longer-term peacekeeping arrangement in those areas.
He said it was unlikely the United States would offer peacekeeping troops, but it could provide logistics and other support.
General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Russian forces appeared to be moving out of cities and consolidating for a move back into the separatist enclaves.
"We see that going on particularly in the areas around the seaports, and around Tbilisi, and up north of Tbilisi, and west towards Gori," he said.
"The air activities in and around that region have slowed dramatically over the last 24 hours. Really, there has been no air activity," he said.
"And so we see them generally complying and moving back into a position where they can start to make their exit in an orderly fashion," he said.
A U.S. military assessment team was in the country to determine conditions for a major humanitarian relief operation.
"Our early comments were: Make sure that the airports are available to us, the roads are available to us, and the seaports available to us. So that's the assessment that's going on during this 48 hours," Cartwright said.
So far, two C-17 military transport planes have flown in medical supplies, shelter and bedding. But Cartwright said plans also called for sending two US hospital ships.
The appearance by Gates and Cartwright was their first in public since the hostilities began with a Georgian incursion into South Ossetia August 6 and quickly escalated into all-out moves by Russia into Georgia proper.
Gates said it appeared the Russians "were prepared to take advantage of an opportunity -- and did so very aggressively — that went far beyond just re-asserting the autonomy of Abkhazia and — or their view of the autonomy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but to punish Georgia."
"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.
Copyright 2008 AFP