WASHINGTON, Aug. 14, 2008 – With their invasion of Georgia, the Russians are sending a message not only to neighbors, but also to the world, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Georgia, a nation of 5 million in the Caucasus region, has allied itself with the West and is seeking membership in NATO. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are provinces that are seeking to break away from Georgia and ally with Russia.
Gates noted that, like clockwork, there have been exchanges of gunfire between Georgian and South Ossetian troops every August. “And this year, it escalated very quickly,” he said. “The Russians were prepared to take advantage of an opportunity.”
The Russian air, land and sea attacks against Georgia went far beyond asserting the Russian view of the autonomy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russians, Gates said, wanted “to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West economically and politically and in security arrangements.”
The Russian military action was directed against Georgia, but Kremlin leaders wanted nations in all parts of the former Soviet Union to understand the dangers of integrating with the West, Gates said. “I think that they had an opportunity to make some very broad points [to these nations] and, I think, [the Russians] seized that opportunity,” he said. Gates holds a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University.
The message has been received by the nations of the world, Gates said.
“My guess is that everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as … we look ahead,” the secretary said. “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, working together.”
Gates said he does not want to repeat the Cold War, and that he certainly does not want to see U.S. and Russian troops in a hot war.
“The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia,” he said. “I see no reason to change that approach today.”