Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that Russian forces appear to be pulling back from positions inside Georgia, dismissing questions about whether U.S. troops might aid the pro-Western Georgian government.
However, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili insisted that Russian forces controlled one-third of his country and that a column of Moscow's tanks was moving toward the second-largest city.
"I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation," Gates said at a briefing in Washington. "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."
Gates said the Russians appear to be withdrawing from Georgia into the conflict zone in South Ossetia. He said many of the reports on the conflict have been incorrect, adding that U.S. officials now believe the Russians never enacted a blockade off Georgia's Black Sea coast, and that the port city of Poti is intact.
"The information we have available to us, first of all, [is] the air corridors are open; we've seen no indication they are blocking roads," he said.
Georgia last week used airstrikes and ground forces in an attempt to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Russian province that threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s. Russia promptly mounted a military response, saying Russian peacekeepers on the South Ossetia border had been killed.
Medvedev Meets Separatists
Earlier Thursday, a top Russian official declared that Georgia might not be permitted to resume control of two separatist regions.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the statement as the Kremlin announced that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was meeting with leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," Lavrov told reporters.
Gates Warns Russians
Gates said Russia could damage its relationship with the U.S. for years if it does not follow through with the cease-fire agreement to pull back troops to pre-conflict levels.
He said the Bush administration last year started talks with Russia that officials hoped would develop a long-term strategic partnership across military, diplomatic and economic spheres. But Russia's actions in Georgia have called that partnership into question, Gates said.
President Bush has called for Russia to withdraw its troops. On Wednesday, he dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to France to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is spearheading a peace effort for the European Union. Rice is also scheduled to go to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi as U.S. humanitarian efforts get under way.
The first of two planned U.S. aid flights arrived in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi late Wednesday, carrying cots, blankets and medicine for refugees displaced by the fighting. In addition to the hundreds killed since hostilities broke out, the United Nations estimated 100,000 Georgians have been uprooted; Russia says some 30,000 residents of South Ossetia fled into the neighboring Russian province of North Ossetia.
Merkel Goes To Moscow
Unlike the United States, Germany and France have avoided blaming Moscow for the conflict in the region. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to meet with Medvedev on Friday and Georgia's Saakashvili two days later, a German official said.
Germany has said it supports the fragile cease-fire that was brokered by France, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Merkel gained favor with the Kremlin earlier this year by opposing Georgia's NATO membership plans, and she has been critical of Saakashvili.