In recent days, Russian government officials have been fond of telling their American counterparts that the United States should choose between a friendship with Russia and supporting its “special project” in Georgia. What the Russians need to understand, of course, is that they face a choice of their own:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Thursday that if Russia doesn’t pull back from its fighting in Georgia it could hurt Moscow-Washington relations “for years to come.”

Speaking at his first Pentagon news conference since the fighting started, Gates also said he does not see “any prospect” for the use of U.S. military force there.

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

But Gates said Russia must face retribution for a military assault on Georgia that appears aimed at punishing the small nation for “daring to try to integrate with the West economically, and politically, and in security arrangements.”

Saying Russia has serious work to do to restore its place in the international community, he said Moscow’s actions have given other European nations a greater incentive to stand with the West.

“I think what happens in the days and months to come will determine the future course of U.S.-Russian relations,” said Gates. “My personal view is that there need to be some consequences for … the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state.”

It takes a lot to tick Robert Gates off. The Russians, apparently, did it. Oh, and the following observation has been proven true anew:

Asked if he trusted Putin, Gates smiled.

“I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust,” said Gates, who has jousted with Putin routinely over the years. “I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities.”

Yup. And if this observation rebukes the President’s “I looked into Putin’s eyes and got a sense of his soul” remarks back in 2001, so be it. Gates is right in general and when it comes to dealing with Putin in particular, his call is better than President Bush’s was.

Of course, the President most certainly does deserve credit for taking a strong stance against Russia’s aggression in Georgia. And John McCain is right to reinforce Gates’s message. I do hope that the Russian Ambassador to the United States is getting an earful from the U.S. government and from the looks of things, Russia is going to have to prepare to see words translated into deeds as well.

Let’s hope so. Again, no one is going to go to war over Georgia. But neither should the Russians get away with doing what they have done without consequences.