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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Russia's aggressive posture in Georgia could affect the U.S.-Russian relationship for years to come. Those were the words today of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

With Russian troops still in Georgia, the Bush administration's rhetoric has gotten noticeably tougher. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is playing a more visible role on the diplomatic front. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the peace plan on the table appears to make major concessions to Russia.

MICHELE KELEMEN: As U.S. government officials struggle to get a good sense of what's happening on the ground in Georgia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in talks in Paris, again calling on Russia to pull back.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): It is time for this crisis to be over. The Russian president has said that their military operations have halted. We would hope that he will be true to his word and that those operations will halt.

KELEMEN: French President Nicolas Sarkozy says that Secretary Rice will ask Georgia to sign a cease-fire document that he negotiated with the Russians. Georgians have raised concerns that part of the French peace plan is too vague, giving Russia room to maneuver and keep some forces not only in the breakaway South Ossetia region, where this conflict began, but also in other parts of Georgia.

Georgian ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze said his small nation is, of course, ready for a cease-fire, but…

Ambassador VASIL SIKHARULIDZE (Georgian Ambassador to the United States): We don't want any kind of cease-fire document to become the legitimization for Russian occupation of Georgian territory.

KELEMEN: Officials traveling with Secretary Rice told reporters that the six-point plan she's bringing to Tbilisi Friday gives Russians a limited right to patrol in Georgia beyond the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia where they already had peacekeepers.

Secretary Rice made no mention of that in public, insisting that both the U.S. and France respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.

Sec. RICE: We will work very hard to see if we can bring an end to this crisis. It is long overdue; too many innocent people have died. And Georgia, whose territorial integrity and independence and sovereignty we fully respect, must be able to get back to normal life.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials say they are ignoring what they call the latest bluster from Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. He told reporters today that the world should forget about Georgia's territorial integrity because South Ossetia and Abkhazia cannot be forced back under Georgian rule.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that it's clear this conflict is about more than those regions and that this is Moscow's attempt to regain its sphere of influence. He said there should be consequences for Russia's aggression in Georgia, though he ruled out the use of U.S. military force.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense Department): 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.

KELEMEN: Gates has been tasked with a humanitarian operation and says that it appears the Georgian port of Poti is intact and supply routes are open. He warned that if Russia does not step back, U.S.-Russian relations could be hurt for years to come, and so too will Russia's aspirations to join international institutions.

Sec. GATES: Everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we look ahead, and I think Russia's got some serious work to do to try and work its way back into the family of nations that are trying to work together and build democracy and build their economies.

KELEMEN: Perhaps the first sign of change happened in Poland today, where the U.S. finally got the deal that it wanted - to station U.S. missile interceptors as part of a missile-defense system.

Poland had been reluctant to go along with the U.S. plan for fear of angering Russia but agreed to it today. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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