Putin Says No Choice in Invasion

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday gave a heated defense of Russia's military actions against Georgia last month but told a gathering of foreign policy experts that Moscow is not seeking a new Cold War.

Addressing the Valdai Discussion Club in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin employed his trademark coarse language to make his point that Russia had no choice but to respond with harsh military action to Georgia's attempt to retake its breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

"In this situation were we supposed to just wipe away the bloody snot and hang our heads?" Putin told the group, a collection of renowned Western and Russian experts.

Putin lashed out at Western criticism that Russia had used disproportionate force in crushing Georgia's Aug. 7 attack on South Ossetia.

"When tanks, multiple rocket launchers and heavy artillery are used against us, are we supposed to fire with sling shots?" he asked rhetorically. "What is an adequate use of force?"

He reassured the Western visitors, however, that Moscow does not want another Cold War and has no imperial ambitions with regard to former Soviet republics.

"We have no desire and no grounds to encroach on the sovereignty of former Soviet republics," Putin said.

The Valdai Discussion Club convenes once a year to meet with top Russian officials and policymakers.

Members met with Putin at his Sochi residence Thursday to discuss the five-day war with Georgia and the subsequent developments, including Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian republic, Abkhazia, as independent states.

While disavowing a new Cold War, Putin said the U.S. effort to strengthen the Georgian military had emboldened Tbilisi to retake South Ossetia by force.

"Our American partners were engaged in training the Georgian armed forces and sent huge [financial] resources there," Putin said. "Instead of seeking of a solution to the interethnic conflicts, in my view, the Georgian side was simply pushed into aggressive action."

The former president also condemned what he called the "propaganda machine of the so-called West," accusing the Western media of biased coverage of the conflict, particularly in the early days of the war, when Georgian troops attacked South Ossetia.

"I was in Beijing, I watched all the international electronic media," Putin said. "There was a total silence, as if nothing was happening at all. It was a remarkable job, but the results were bad, and will always be bad because such work is unfair and immoral."

Putin's description of the initial phase of the conflict, however, contradicted the account a Russian officer who fought in South Ossetia gave last week to the Defense Ministry's official newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda.

Putin said Thursday that a tiny contingent of Russian peacekeepers fought Georgian troops for two days before Russian troops made it to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

The officer told Krasnaya Zvezda, however, that his regiment was dispatched from the Russian-Georgian border to Tskhinvali on the evening of Aug. 7 and was fighting Georgian forces the following morning.

Putin justified Russia's occupation of Georgian territory following the conflict, comparing it to the march on Berlin by Allied forces in World War II.

"They could have just fought until they reached [the German] borders, but they didn't stop," he said. "The aggressor had to be punished."

Part of Putin's meeting with the Valdai club members was off-limits for the press.

Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at Germany's Council on Foreign Relations, said that during the closed-doors discussion, Putin offered assurances that Russia was not going to invade any other country, including Ukraine, whose region of Crimea has been viewed by some Western politicians and analysts as a possible target for Moscow.

"Putin said that Russia's border with Ukraine is as secure as its border with China," said Rahr, a member of the Valdai club.

Putin said that even if Russia slides into the Cold War-like opposition to the West, which he said he would not want, Moscow would continue to cooperate with the Western powers on global issues such as terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation and energy security, Rahr said.

Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, praised Putin for "being in a great shape as usual" as well as for "not escalating rhetoric" vis-a-vis the United States.

The Valdai club members also met Thursday in Sochi with the leaders of the separatist Georgian republics, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity and Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh.

Kokoity performed a clumsy diplomatic flip-flop, first saying South Ossetia is eager to be absorbed by Russia and rejoin the Russian region of North Ossetia.

Two hours later, after Russian and foreign media reported the remarks, he claimed that his republic would never give up its independence.

"Obviously, I was misunderstood," Kokoity said, Interfax reported. "We are not going to give up the independence we obtained thanks to colossal sacrifices, and South Ossetia doesn't plan to become part of Russia.

Kokoity's about-face was followed by a similar statement by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met senior Polish officials Thursday in Warsaw.

"South Ossetia does not want to join anything," Lavrov told reporter. "It understood that without declaring independence it would not be able to provide for its own safety."

So far, only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized the rebel regions as independent states.

Lavrov also said Thursday that "high level" U.S. officials had said that if Tbilisi undertook "an armed action against Ossetia, then it will scrap their plans for NATO membership," The Associated Press reported.

Joining NATO has been Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's major foreign policy goal and one that, to Moscow's ire, has received the backing of the United States.

The Valdai club was scheduled to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev either Friday or Saturday.

Addressing a meeting of top defense official Thursday, Medvedev accused the United States of "developing relations with rotten regimes," referring to the U.S. support of Tbilisi's pro-Western government.