White House candidates Barack Obama and John McCain on Tuesday refused to call Russia an "evil empire" but nevertheless criticized Moscow`s military actions in Georgia.

During the second of three televised debates ahead of the November 4 election, the two were asked about former president Ronald Reagan`s characterization of the former Soviet Union in 1983 as the "evil empire."

"Ronald Reagan said that the Soviet Union was the evil empire. Do you think that Russia under (Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin is the evil empire?" asked the moderator, journalist Tom Brokaw.

"I think they are engaged in an evil behavior," answered Obama. "We must understand that they are not the old Soviet Union, but they still have nationalist impulses that are very dangerous."

His Republican rival answered: "Maybe. It depends on how we respond to Russia. It depends on a lot of things.

"If I say yes, that means that we are reigniting the old Cold War. If I say no, it is ignoring their behavior."

McCain highlighted the importance of energy in the region, in a reference to Russia oil dominance and the volatility of other energy gateways after Russia fought a five-day war with Georgia over breakaway territory in August.

"Energy is going to be a big factor. Georgia and Ukraine are gateways into Europe. That is one of the reasons it is in our interest," McCain said.

"The Russians, I think we can deal with them. They have to understand that they are facing a very firm and determined United States of America that will defend our interests and the interests of others in the world."

Reagan called the Soviet Union the "evil empire" during a speech to Christian evangelicals in 1983, amid mounting nuclear tensions during the Cold War era.