Rice warns Moscow about its bomber runs off Alaska

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 18, 2008 

A Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 bomber.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Monday ruled out accelerating Georgia's admission to NATO in response to the Russian invasion. But she warned Moscow that it is playing "a very dangerous game" by resuming Cold War-era strategic bomber patrols close to the Alaskan coast.

"Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that's its military power," Rice told reporters en route to an emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers set for Tuesday. "That's not the way to deal in the 21st century."

With Europe divided between former Soviet bloc nations, which seek tough measures, and major powers such as Germany, which is hesitant to jeopardize significant business and energy ties with Russia, it was unclear whether NATO would produce a robust response to Russia's invasion of Georgia.

Russian forces Monday continued to move around Georgia with impunity, and senior U.S. defense officials said they were troubled by intelligence showing the Russians had deployed SS-21 ballistic missiles into South Ossetia with a range to strike Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

Rice said Russia has raised questions about its place in the international community through the invasion and other actions, including the resumption last year for the first time since the 1991 collapse of the former Soviet Union of air patrols near the Alaskan coast by Tu-95 strategic bombers, code-named Bears by NATO.

"We've had Russian strategic aviation challenging in ways they haven't, even along our borders with the United States, which I might note is a very dangerous game and perhaps one that I suggest the Russians want to reconsider. This is not one that is cost-free," Rice said.

She did not elaborate on a U.S. reaction to the flights, which have been widely seen as an attempt by Russia, flush with windfall oil profits, to reassert itself as a global power despite serious problems with its military.

Since the flights resumed in August 2007, U.S. and Canadian fighters have intercepted the Russian bombers and escorted them away from the U.S. coast.

U.S. officials have previously attached little real significance to the flights by the turboprop-powered Cold War relics, and defense officials said Monday recent flights did not provoke concerns within the Pentagon.

Russian bombers also have made forays into neutral airspace near Norway and over U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

Rice said, however, that the Alaska patrols and the invasion of Georgia contradicted Russia's stated desire for political and economic integration into the international community.

She charged that Russia's offensive deep into Georgia was aimed at "undermining" the pro-U.S. government of President Mikhail Saakashvili and crippling the impoverished nation by damaging and destroying vital economic infrastructure.

"That is an objective that will be denied because Georgian democracy stands and it will stand with the help of its allies around the world," Rice said. "Georgian infrastructure will be rebuilt. Georgia's economy will be reinforced."

Rice said that NATO foreign ministers would consider measures to reinforce U.S. and European support for Georgia's territorial integrity. For its part, the United States is also sending teams to assess the re-equipping of Georgia's U.S.-trained military, which was battered by superior Russian forces, and to evaluate reconstruction needs, she said.

But she said the United States would not push to accelerate approval by the 26 foreign ministers of plans for the admission to NATO of Georgia and the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.

Instead, the ministers were expected to reaffirm that the plans will be considered as scheduled at a regular foreign ministers meeting in December.

"We are . . . going to send a message that we are not going to allow Russia to draw a new line at those states that are not yet integrated into the trans-Atlantic structures like Georgia and Ukraine," said Rice.

France and Germany blocked approval in April of the criteria they must meet to qualify for membership, citing Georgia's unresolved territorial disputes and vehement Russian opposition.

Rice said the ministers also would reaffirm NATO's support for former Soviet bloc nations like Poland and the Baltic states. Though now alliance members, those nations have been deeply unsettled by what they saw as a tepid Western response to a major step by Moscow to reassert its influence over its former empire.

Rice is to visit Warsaw on Wednesday to formally sign an agreement that will allow the United States to locate anti-missile interceptors in Poland in exchange for bolstering the country's air defenses, a move that has enraged Russia.

Finally, she said, the foreign ministers will reassess overall relations with Russia, which has been seeking membership in international financial institutions and closer ties with the European Union.

"Frankly, Russia can't have it both ways. It can't act in a way that it did in the Cold War when it was the Soviet Union and expect to be treated as a responsible partner," Rice said.

Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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