WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday he sees no need to invoke American military force in the war between Russia and Georgia and that U.S.-Russian relations could suffer for years if Moscow doesn't retreat. The White House said it was ignoring Russian 'bluster' about Georgia never regaining disputed border regions.
At the same time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Paris issuing another urgent call on Russia to honor a previously announced cease-fire with Georgia as she was getting ready to bring the formal agreement to Tbilisi for signing today by the president of Georgia, a democratic former Soviet republic now strongly aligned with Washington.
President Bush repeated his call for the cease-fire to be honored and demanded that Moscow respect the 'territorial integrity' of Georgia. He spoke after spending nearly four hours getting briefed at CIA headquarters about elements of the war on terror and the grim situation in Georgia.
Bush said he looked forward to hearing directly from Rice at his Texas ranch on Saturday.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who has been leading Western efforts to stop the fighting, said the documents are 'intended to consolidate the cease-fire.'
At the Pentagon, Gates described a broad humanitarian effort for Georgians displaced or harmed by the fighting. He said there isn't any need for U.S. fighting forces there, although the relief effort is being run by the U.S. military. At his side for a news conference, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright said the military assesses that Russia is 'generally complying' with the truce that called for its withdrawal from the hostilities.
Cartwright said Russian forces appeared to be forming up in Georgia in preparation for withdrawal.
'It's difficult at the tactical level to know each and every engagement in each town,' he said, 'but, generally, the forces are starting to move.'
Gates said the Bush administration last year started talks with Russia that officials hoped would develop a long-term strategic partnership. The idea was to give a backbone to the U.S. relationship with Russia across military, diplomatic and economic spheres. But Russia's invasion of Georgia and the weeklong fighting that followed has called that into question, he said.
Gates told reporters he believes Russia has decided 'to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West.'
Asked what he thought the Russians are hoping to gain from the fight, Gates said he thinks they are trying to redress what they regard as the many concessions forced on them amid the breakup of the former Soviet Union. They want to 'reassert their international status,' he said.
Also Thursday, the administration said it will ignore 'bluster' from Russia about the future of separatist regions at the heart of the conflict.
'The United States of America stands strongly, as the president of France just said, for the territorial integrity of Georgia,' Rice said following a meeting with Sarkozy.
Russia and Georgia have agreed to a truce but Russian tanks and troops remain.