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ARLINGTON, Va. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the Russian invasion of Georgia a "punitive mission" meant to warn other Eastern European nations against getting too close to the West.

"My view is that the Russians, and I would say principally Prime Minister (Vladimir) Putin, is interested in reasserting Russia’s — not only Russia’s great power or superpower status, but in reasserting Russia’s traditional spheres of influence," Gates said Thursday.

Gates said the U.S. government is re-evaluating its security relationship with Russia, and said he doesn’t foresee a U.S. military response to the conflict.

"If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russia relationship could be adversely affected for years to come," he said.

Not only has the U.S. canceled its participation in a multinational naval exercise that was due to begin Friday, Gates said, it also has canceled Vigilant Eagle, an exercise between Canada, the U.S., and Russia, that was due to begin Aug. 20.

"In the days and weeks ahead, the Defense Department will re-examine the entire gamut of our military-to-military activities with Russia, and will make changes as necessary and appropriate, depending on Russian actions," Gates said.

When asked if he trusted Putin, Gates replied: "I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and realities."

Gates noted there have been flare-ups between Georgia and its breakaway province of South Ossetia every August since 2004.

"This year, it escalated very quickly, and it seemed to me that the Russians were prepared to take advantage of an opportunity, and did so very aggressively," he said.

The damage that Russia did to Georgia was meant "to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West economically, politically and in security arrangements," Gates said.

"I think that the Russians’ further message was to all of the parts of the former Soviet Union as a signal about trying to integrate with the West and move outside of the longtime Russian sphere of influence," Gates said.

Asked if the Russians planned this invasion ahead of time, Gates said, "I’m not sure."

Gates also made it clear that the chances of a U.S. military response to the Russian invasion of Georgia are nil.

"I don’t see any prospect for the use of military force in this situation," he said.

It is also unlikely that U.S. troops would serve as peacekeepers in Georgia.

"We do seem to be busy with other things, so there is a question of resources but at the same time I think that it’s — it probably, my guess is there would be more interest in having peacekeepers come out of Europe for this situation," he said.

If there is any kind of peacekeeping mission to Georgia, the U.S. military would more likely provide a supporting role in areas such as airlift, Gates said.

"The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," he said. "I see no reason to change that approach today."

Stars and Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this report.


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