WASHINGTON – In language reminiscent of the Cold War, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that the Pentagon is shutting down joint military exercises with Russia and will re-evaluate its relationship with the former Soviet nation after its attack on neighboring Georgia.
At the same time, the White House said it's ignoring any talk from Russia that Georgia has lost two separatist provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, of which Russia seeks to lay claim.
Later in the day, President Bush was briefed by CIA officials, and again called for the cease-fire to be honored in the former Soviet republic.
Bush repeated his demand that Russia respect the "territorial integrity" of Georgia. He spoke after spending nearly four hours at CIA headquarters where he received briefings on the war on terror and the grim situation in Georgia, where a tenuous cease-fire is in place after days of violence.
The president revealed no new information from his briefing in comments to reporters, and his language in confronting Russia was unchanged.
"I call ... for the territorial integrity in Georgia to be respected and for the cease-fire to be honored," Bush said.
Speaking at the Pentagon, Gates said no prospect for "the use of military force by the United States in this situation," but the U.S. has cancelled a joint naval exercise with Russia scheduled to begin Friday as well as pulled out of a multinational exercise that was set to begin next week.
"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 said.
"In the days and weeks ahead, the Department of Defense will re- examine the entire gamut of our military-to-military activities with Russia and will make changes as necessary and appropriate, depending on Russian actions in the days ahead," he continued.
The recent activities have brought to the fore underlying concerns about the U.S. and Russia's diminishing relationship, and Gates did not downplay his concerns about the seeming return to a Cold War posture.
"That certainly is not our desire. I think frankly we have been pretty restrained in this and I would say, beginning with my remarks at the Vercunda Conference a year ago February where now-Prime Minister Putin's speech was regarded by virtually everyone there as very aggressive, and we have tried not to respond in that manner," Gates said
"I think what happens in the days and months to come will determine the future course of U.S.-Russian relations. But, by the same token, my personal view is that there need to be some consequences for — for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state," he said.
Asked if he trusted Putin "anymore," Gates responded. "'Anymore' is an interesting add. I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities."
Gates added that the United States has "spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia. I see no reason to change that approach today."
Gates' remarks followed a declaration earlier in the day by Russia's foreign minister, who said the world "can forget about" Georgia's territorial integrity, strongly suggesting that Russia could absorb the regions where it has supported separatist movements in a goad to Georgia since the election there of a strongly pro-American president.
"I would consider that to be bluster from the foreign minister of Russia," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We will ignore it."
Gates said Russia is trying to reassert its "superpower" status and "spheres of influence" in a "negative way."
Nonetheless, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is headed to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Friday to deliver a document that codifies the cease-fire between the two nations. The document was formulated under the aegis of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is leading Western efforts to convince Russia to withdraw from Georgia.
"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.
Gates said that the first order of business for Russia is to cease its military activities and make way for humanitarian relief efforts being led by European Command. EUCOM has already sent in a survey team to Georgia to determine the needs on the ground and is leading the military component of the relief and assistance effort directed by the U.S. State Department.
The United States is not planning to send in peacekeepers. The U.S. military will assist the people of Georgia, Gates said, and then the U.S. government will turn to questions of economic reconstruction or security training for the Georgians.
At the State Department, spokesman Robert Wood said more than $2 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance had been delivered to Georgia and three convoys had transported 202 Americans from Georgia to Armenia, the third one carrying 32 Americans.
"The most urgent priority for the U.S. military at this time is to save lives and alleviate suffering," Gates said.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright said that in the past day Russia has slowed its offensive and appears to be pulling back. Air activity is virtually nil and Russian forces are pulling back from Gori, outside the capital of Tbilisi.
Cartwright added that he has not concluded that recent cyber attacks on Georgian Web sites was part of the Russian build up to military force.
"At this stage of the game, it would be premature to try to go through the forensics that we have and make a determination, although we are looking at it. Most of what we have seen and been able to monitor and verify is of a defacing of Web sites, not really as robust as denial of service," he said, adding that it's unknown whether the cyber attacks were tied to military activities or was more a separate group with a political agenda.
The defense secretary said many of the initial reports about the situation on the ground in Georgia were wrong, and a blockade of the port at Gori, for instance, did not happen. Nonetheless, he said, it is critical for Russia to return to a cooperative spirit rather than a confrontational one.
"So I think that my guess is that everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we look ahead, and I think Russia has some serious work to do to try to work its way back into the family of nations that are trying to work together, and build democracy, and build their economies, working together," he said.