Cheney: Russia's actions an 'affront'

In a stinging rebuke, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said Saturday that Russia's actions in the conflict with Georgia were an "affront to civilized standards" and called on Western nations to stand united against any effort by Moscow to use its dominance as an energy supplier to intimidate its neighbors.

Cheney also said the expansion of NATO would continue despite Moscow's opposition, arguing that Russia should welcome its neighbors' joining an alliance that was not belligerent and whose members were democratic.

Moscow has objected to NATO's promise of future membership to Georgia and Ukraine, states it once ruled during the Soviet era.

"Russia's actions are an affront to civilized standards and are completely unacceptable," the vice president said. "Russia has offered no satisfactory justification for the invasion, nor could it do so."

Employing some of the harshest language by the United States in the month since the crisis erupted, Cheney portrayed Russia as an increasingly bellicose nation whose actions were at odds with today's interconnected global community.

"Brutality against the neighbor is simply the latest in a succession of troublesome and unhelpful actions by the Russian government," he said. Russia, he said, was "increasingly antagonistic" in Europe and has endangered its international standing by using energy as "a tool of force and manipulation."

"Russia must relate to the world as a responsible modern power," Cheney said, speaking at a gathering of political and business leaders in this Italian lakeside resort.

"In the space of the last 30 days, Russia has violated the sovereignty of a democracy, made and then breached a solemn agreement in a direct affront to the EU, severely damaged its credibility and global standing and undermined its own relations with the United States and other countries," Cheney said.

Russia and Georgia blame each other for provoking the conflict that erupted Aug. 7. But in invading uncontested Georgian territory — sending troops beyond Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — Cheney said Russia acted in a manner "flatly contrary to some of our most deeply held beliefs."

Earlier this week, Cheney visited oil-rich Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Georgia, and Washington offered Georgia a US$1 billion aid package to help it recover from the war with Russia.

Cheney's broadside came as European Union nations — whose foreign ministers met this weekend in Avignon, France — pressed Russia again to keep its word and withdraw its forces from Georgia.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the EU peace plan, will lead an EU diplomatic mission to meet Monday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

In Moscow, Medvedev gave no signal that he would compromise, saying the war with Georgia had shown the world that "Russia is a nation to be reckoned with."

The two leaders need to iron out disagreements over how far back Russian forces must be withdrawn from Georgian territory under the accord, as well as the issue of deploying observers.

At the end of EU talks Saturday, host Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said EU nations also agreed on the need to launch an international investigation into human rights abuses during the fighting and causes of the conflict.

But by ruling out sanctions against Russia, he took a much softer diplomatic stance than Cheney.

"Russia must remain a partner, it's our neighbor, it's a large country and there is no question to go back to a Cold War situation, that would be a big mistake," Kouchner said.

In his speech at the gathering in Cernobbio, Cheney complained of Russian arms sales to hostile Mideast nations, saying the weapons were trickling down to insurgents in Iraq and militant groups in Lebanon.

"In the Middle East, Russian arms-dealing has endangered the prospects for peace and freedom in that region," he said. "Russia has sold advanced weapons to regimes in Syria and Iran. Some of the Russian weapons sold to Damascus have been channeled to terrorist fighters in Lebanon and Iraq."

Cheney also worried about Russia's future moves.

"Russia has continued to use energy as a tool of force and manipulation. It has interrupted or threatened to interrupt the flow of oil or natural gas to Georgia" and other countries, he said. Cheney's message was somewhat at odds with some Europeans' belief that Russia was provoked into the Georgia conflict by a cavalier dismissal of its objections over NATO's expansion.

Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also said Russia's actions were indefensible, but he emphasized diplomacy, not confrontation, as a solution.

In an interview with AP, he said the next U.S. administration must begin a "strategic dialogue" with Russia to avoid a deepening of tensions.

[Source: The International Herald Tribune, Cernobbio, Ita, 06Sep08]

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