Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, on Thursday issued her most stinging criticism of Russia yet, accusing Moscow of being authoritarian at home, “paranoid aggressive” abroad and on a “one-way path” to international isolation.

Her comments, part of the US effort to reshape policy in the wake of last month’s Russia-Georgia war, signify one of the lowest points in relations between Washington and Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union 17 years ago.

“Russia’s international standing is worse now than at any time since 1991,” she said at a speech at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. She cited the country’s “rollback of personal freedoms”, its “arbitrary enforcement of the law”, its “pervasive corruption” and what she called a “paranoid aggressive impulse” to view democratic transitions in neighbouring countries “as a threat to Russia’s interests”.

Listing the consequences of Russia’s behaviour, she said its attempts to join the World Trade Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development were “now in question”, and stressed that the US had put a nuclear deal with Moscow on ice.

She also alluded to the turmoil in Russia’s financial markets in the wake of the Georgia conflict, contending that its “leaders are imposing pain on their nation’s economy”.

Ms Rice’s speech comes as the US seeks to refashion a Russia policy that until last month was focused on repairing relations with Moscow after what the Kremlin perceived was a series of slights during the Bush years. US officials say they are seeking to combine an effort to rally European support for Georgia, condemn Russia’s behaviour and chart a path for co-operation with Moscow on issues of overriding mutual interest.

Ms Rice said the US’s strategic goal was to “make it clear to Russia’s leaders that their choices are putting Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance”.

However, the US’s efforts are complicated by greater European unease about bringing Ukraine and Georgia closer to Nato membership in the light of last month’s events and by the European Union’s fragmented approach to Russia – in particular, its differing national policies towards Moscow’s role as an energy supplier. Washington is also seeking Russian help on Iran’s nuclear programme.

On Thursday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a UK-based think-tank, said Georgia had undermined its Nato bid by moving troops into South Ossetia, since in doing so it had “openly defied its main strategic patron, the US”, which had advised against the move.

The tenor of Ms Rice’s speech contrasted with remarks by Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, who has adopted a “realist” posture towards Moscow.

In London for a meeting of Nato defence ministers, he played down calls from central and eastern European states for a more robust military commitment to defend alliance members close to Russia’s borders.

“We need to proceed with some caution,” he said, calling for the alliance to focus on traditional planning and exercise activities that “are not provocative and don’t tend to draw firm red lines or send signals that are unwanted”.

The US is also pushing for a show of unity among the world’s big powers, including Russia, on Iran’s nuclear programme, although Washington’s hopes of tougher sanctions on Iran are based on its European allies, not Moscow. Ms Rice is set to meet Sergei Lavrov, her Russian opposite number, at the United Nations next week.

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