Vladimir Putin

MOSCOW — 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 after 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.

Putin often uses earthy language when he wants to make a point, and the contents of noses are a favorite image.

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 Georgia's assault was far less deadly than had been asserted.

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 some 1,500 civilians were killed in the region.

Putin also said the West was wrong to claim Russia has imperial ambitions. Russia has "no wish or grounds to encroach on the sovereignty of former Soviet republics," he said.

Putin spoke as Russia rushed to counter claims that it intended to annex South Ossetia.

South Ossetia's leader, Eduard Kokoity, said that union with Russia was his region's goal, a statement he quickly reversed.

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 during fighting 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."

War broke out after Georgian troops 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 troops from positions outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia within about a month, but has said it will keep 7,600 soldiers inside the two regions.

Russian annexation of South Ossetia would infuriate 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.

Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, said Thursday that Russia invaded his country to derail its bid to join NATO, a move that angered the Kremlin. He urged the alliance not reject Georgia, warning that showing weakness would encourage further Russian aggression.

"If NATO sends a sign of weakness — and clearly this invasion was intended to deter, to scare NATO away — if NATO gets scared away, then this will be a never-ending story," Saakashvili said during an interview with The Associated Press.

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.

Associated Press writer Steve Gutterman in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report.