PRISTINA (Reuters) -- The United States will keep troops in Kosovo until at least late 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, underlining support for the NATO peacekeeping operation.
Gates, making the highest-level U.S. visit to the country since it declared independence, said the aim of his trip was to visit U.S. soldiers. No U.S. defense secretary has been to Kosovo since 2001.
He rejected suggestions that the trip was meant to send any message to Russia, which opposed Kosovo's independence and has been locked in conflict with the West since going to war with Georgia in August. Russia has since recognized Georgia's breakaway regions as independent, a move widely seen as a response to the U.S. position on Kosovo.
"I don't consider Kosovo Russia's backyard," Gates told reporters when asked how Russia should respond to his visit. "My primary purpose in going to Kosovo is to visit the American troops there."
Gates' stop in Kosovo starts a week of meetings with European defense ministers expected to focus heavily on Russia's military intervention in Georgia and fears among ex-Soviet states that Moscow's actions could signal renewed aggression in the region.
The Pentagon chief will meet with senior officials in Kosovo and then hold bilateral meetings with Georgian and Ukrainian officials on the sidelines of defense ministerial meetings in Macedonia and Hungary later this week. Finding A Balance
Relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated steadily for more than two years, driven in part by disputes over a U.S. missile-defense system in former Soviet-allied territory and Russia's resumption of Cold War-era military exercises.
The United States has struggled since the conflict in Georgia to find a balance between supporting small democracies in the region and keeping Russia engaged on important global issues, such as the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
"We have to figure out the right path in terms of the reality that we have to do business with Russia on important issues but at the same time convey the message that it can't be business as usual after what happened in Georgia," Gates said.
The Pentagon chief said ongoing U.S. participation in the NATO force in Kosovo was important to European allies and that he had approved a troop rotation that guarantees a U.S. presence until at least October 2009.
"We will continue to fulfill our responsibilities there," he said.
But Gates did not always have that commitment to the mission. Last year, he considered pulling the roughly 1,500 U.S. troops out of Kosovo if Europe would not fulfill promises to put more forces into Afghanistan. He backed away from the threat but his aides then said it would remain on the table as leverage on Afghanistan war requirements.