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US Defense Chief Urges Strong Europe to Deter Russia


U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says "Russia's recent behavior raises questions about how successful" the United States "can be in trying to pursue a constructive relationship." And he urged European allies to rebuild their defenses to deter any potential Russian aggression. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Woodstock, England, near Oxford, where Gates spoke Friday evening, just one day after calling for a "cautious" and "prudent" response to Russia's invasion of Georgia.

At times using harsh language, Secretary Gates said Russia seems to be returning "to Czarist habits and aspirations," and accused it of "mauling and menacing small democracies." But at the same time, Secretary Gates said the goal of the European military buildup he would like to see is to avoid "military confrontation," and he indicated that with the right action that may be easier than it was during the Cold War.

"In reality, Russia's policies are borne of a grievance-based desire to dominate its 'near abroad,' not an ideology-based effort to dominate the globe," he said. "And Russia's current actions - however egregious - do not represent the existential and global threat that the Soviet Union represented."

Secretary Gates spoke after spending Friday meeting with NATO defense ministers for closed-door talks that a senior U.S. official said would likely focus on what the alliance's response should be to Russia's invasion of Georgia and its effort to help Abkhazia and South Ossetia become independent. The United States has long urged NATO members to increase their defense spending and develop a more modern, deployable joint force. Secretary Gates indicated Russia's moves in Georgia could inspire NATO to do some of those things.

"I believe the Goergia incursion will, over time, be recognized as a Pyrrhic victory at best and a costly strategic overreach," he said. "Europe and the United States will help Georgia rebuild, and in the weeks and months ahead, will be coming to other decisions about our relationship with Russia - the decision that, could among other consequences, affect Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization and the Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development."

The NATO defense ministers will meet again in three weeks in Budapest. NATO leaders have promised Georgia it will be allowed to join the alliance, although they have not set a date. That would involve including Georgia in NATO's mutual defense pledge. That process will likely not start in Budapest, but a senior U.S. defense official said Thursday the United States wants some of the modernization plans to move forward.

Gates told his audience Friday Europe and the United States "need to be careful about the commitments" they make, but also "willing to keep commitments once made." And he noted that only five of NATO's 26 members meet the group's defense budget standard - two percent of economic output. He said European countries have gone too far toward what he called "pacification," which he said is now "a potential impediment to achieving real and lasting peace," because "real or perceived weakness is always a temptation to miscalculation and aggression."

He called on European allies to take what he called "steadfast and prudent steps now" in their political, economic and military policies to "shape the choices" other powers may make in the future.