WASHINGTON — Using her toughest rhetoric so far to criticize Russia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that its invasion of Georgia had put Moscow "on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation" and warned that the West would resist further Russian attempts to impinge on its neighbors' sovereignty.
"The United States and Europe must not allow Russia's aggression to achieve any benefit. Not in Georgia, not anywhere," Rice said in a speech in Washington. "We will resist any Russian attempt to consign sovereign nations and free peoples to some archaic 'sphere of influence.' "
Rice's address to the German Marshall Fund, more than a month after Russia sent tanks and soldiers into Georgia, was long on criticism but didn't indicate any new specific U.S. steps in dealing with Russia.
Rice spoke vaguely on the issue of Georgia's eventual membership in the NATO alliance, saying only, "the door to a Euro-Atlantic future remains wide open to Georgia." By contrast, Vice President Dick Cheney declared during a visit to Tbilisi two weeks ago that the United States is committed to Georgia joining the Atlantic alliance.
In a question-and-answer session after the speech, Rice was similarly cautious about reducing Russia's role in the G-8 group of industrialized nations. Republican presidential candidate John McCain advocates Russia's ouster from the G-8.
"We will have to see. The jury is still out on a couple of elements about Russia. And I hope that Russia will, frankly, stop digging the hole that it has dug by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia," she said, referring to separatist regions of Georgia that Moscow has recognized as independent states.
On Wednesday, however, Russia took another step, signing friendship treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, pledging to defend them from attack by Georgia's central government.
The speech by Rice, a Russia scholar, culminates an about-face for President Bush and her, who for most of their tenure courted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's now the powerful prime minister.
"It's frustrating that they now, in the eleventh and a half hour of the administration, that they suddenly got concerned," said Sarah Mendelson, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center, who attended the speech Thursday as well as a private meeting with Rice on Wednesday.
Minus the references to Russia's actions in Georgia, Rice "could have delivered that speech in 2002, 2003," Mendelson said. She was referring to Rice's criticism of limits on freedom in Russia.
Rice dwelt at length on Russia's evolution since the Cold War ended.
While acknowledging the country's humiliation after the Soviet Union collapsed, she said: "What has become clear is that the legitimate goal of rebuilding Russia has taken a dark turn, with the rollback of personal freedoms, the arbitrary enforcement of the law, the pervasive corruption at various levels of Russian society."
She chided Georgia's leaders for their handling of the crisis, but laid the blame squarely on Moscow and argued that its actions have backfired. "Russia's international standing is worse now than at any time since 1991," she said.
"A pat on the back from Daniel Ortega and Hamas is not a diplomatic triumph," she said, referring to the Nicaraguan leader and the militant Palestinian group, the only two entities to approve Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
She mocked Russia's recent efforts to re-establish its influence in Latin America, including sending two bomber aircraft to Venezuela.
"We are confident that our ties with our neighbors . . . will in no way be diminished by a few, aging Blackjack bombers visiting one of Latin America's few autocracies," she said.
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