BLENHEIM PALACE (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Moscow on Friday of “mauling and menacing small democracies” but said today’s Russia did not pose a threat to the world like the Soviet Union.
Gates also said Russia’s recent military action in Georgia was a Pyrrhic victory — costing Moscow far more in the long term than any short-term gains it achieved.
“The Russian leadership might seek to exorcise past humiliations and aspire to recapture past glory along with past territory,” he said. “But mauling and menacing small democracies does not a great power make.”
Moscow was internationally condemned for sending troops and tanks into Georgia to stop Tbilisi’s attempt to reassert control over the pro-Russian, separatist region of South Ossetia.
Russia later recognized South Ossetia and another rebel Georgian region, Abkhazia, as independent states, and on Wednesday signed treaties to protect them from Georgian attack.
Gates’ remarks came a day after a speech by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that was highly critical of Moscow.
While Gates, a former CIA director who built his career on knowledge of Russia and the Soviet Union, echoed some of Rice’s words, he also sought to put the conflict over Georgia in perspective.
“In reality, Russia’s policies are born of a grievance-based desire to dominate its ‘near abroad’, not an ideology-based effort to dominate the globe,” he said in a speech at Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, near Oxford.
“And Russia’s current actions — however egregious — do not represent the existential and global threat that the Soviet Union represented,” he told a conference organized by consulting firm Oxford Analytica.
“Russia’s conventional military remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor in size and capability,” he said.
“Images of the Russian armor and artillery overwhelming Georgia’s tiny military — an active force of some 30,000 troops — does not reverse that reality,” Gates said.
“I believe the Georgia incursion will, over time, be recognized as a Pyrrhic victory at best and a costly strategic overreach,” he declared.
He said Europe and Washington would help Georgia rebuild and take decisions in the months ahead that could affect Russian bids for membership of the World Trade Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“Russia’s recent behavior raises questions about how successful we can be in trying to pursue a constructive relationship,” he said.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan