Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insisted Thursday that Russia has no intention of encroaching on the sovereignty of Georgia after a brief war that left Russian troops in firm control of two breakaway regions.
Putin also aggressively defended the decision to invade Georgia, saying Russia had to act when Georgia attacked South Ossetia on Aug. 7.
"In this situation were we supposed to just wipe away bloody snot and hang our heads?" he asked a visiting group of Western scholars and journalists over lunch.
Striking out at the West for questioning Russia's use of overwhelming force, he said Russia could not have been expected to use a "pocket knife" or "sling shot" to counter Georgia's U.S.-trained army.
"When tanks, multiple rocket launchers and heavy artillery are used against us, are we supposed to fire with sling shots?" Putin asked his Western visitors. "What is an adequate use of force?"
But his comments came as an international human rights group said that Georgia's assault was far less deadly than had been asserted.
Disputed death toll
Fewer than 100 civilians died in South Ossetia during last month's war, Human Rights Watch said Thursday. Russia and its South Ossetian allies have contended that about 1,500 civilians were killed in the region.
Putin also said the West was wrong to claim that Russia has imperial ambitions. Russia has "no wish or grounds to encroach on the sovereignty of former Soviet republics," he said.
Putin spoke Thursday as Russia jumped to counter claims that it intended to annex South Ossetia.
Speaking to the same group of Western experts earlier in the day, South Ossetia's leader said that union with Russia was his region's goal, a statement that threatened to undermine part of Russia's justification for military intervention.
Eduard Kokoity quickly reversed himself.
"I have probably been misunderstood," he was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying. "We are not going to relinquish our independence, which we won at the cost of colossal sacrifices, and South Ossetia is not going to become part of Russia."
Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent nation, along with another separatist region, Abkhazia, after last month's war with Georgia over the regions. Both have had de-facto independence for more than a decade since breaking away from Georgian control in the early 1990s.
Many have expected that Russia would ultimately seek to absorb South Ossetia and unite its residents with their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia. Kokoity acknowledged as much Thursday.
"Yes, many in South Ossetia are talking about reunification with North Ossetia within Russia, and nobody can ban expressing such ideas," he was quoted as saying.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quick to counter Kokoity's initial statement.
"South Ossetia is not intending to link up with anybody," he told reporters in Warsaw, Poland. "They have understood that without a declaration of independence, they cannot ensure their own security."
Conflict in South Ossetia
War broke out after Georgian forces launched an offensive to retake South Ossetia. Russian forces then routed Georgia's military and drove deep into Georgia.
Russia has agreed to withdraw all its forces from positions outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia within about a month, but has said it will keep 7,600 troops inside the two regions.
Russian annexation of South Ossetia would infuriate the Georgians, who remain determined to bring both regions under government control.
It would also weaken Russia's arguments for invading South Ossetia, by giving the impression that Russia had been seeking to absorb South Ossetia all along.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday he is considering setting up peacekeeping missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The possibility, Ban said, comes after "almost daily contact with world leaders" on the Russian occupation of Georgian territory weeks after last month's five-day war.
Saakashvili warns NATO
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili urged NATO not to let Russia's military campaign scare the alliance away from incorporating his nation.
Saakashvili has told The Associated Press that showing weakness in the face of Moscow would start what he called a "never-ending story" of Russian aggression.
He spoke in an interview late Thursday before a visit from the NATO secretary-general and other alliance officials next week.
Saakashvili has angered Moscow by seeking NATO membership for Georgia, and he said Russia's invasion last month was aimed to scare NATO away.
He suggested keeping Georgia out of NATO because of Russian control over two separatist regions could encourage Russia to use force in Ukraine.