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Pentagon moves cautiously in Georgia conflict

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August 15, 2008
— If ever there was a sign of the limits of American military power, it was the scene of U.S. aircraft delivering blankets and medicine to a beleaguered Georgia under invasion by Russia tanks.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the U.S. has worked for decades to avoid a military fight with Russia and he didn't see "any prospect" for using American force now.


Short of that, the Bush administration was left to aid Georgian allies this week largely by dispatching diplomatic envoys, issuing public warnings and sending two C-17s with relief supplies as well as a dozen-man military team to assess Georgian humanitarian needs.


"I think the whole thing is more of symbolic importance," Ted Galen Carpenter, an analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said of the relief team and flights. "It's establishing a presence, showing the flag and challenging the expansion of Russian power in that country."


Bolstering Georgia is something the United States has been working to do since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and end of the Cold War. Since then the U.S. has sent $1.7 billion in aid for democratic, economic and security reform programs, with an emphasis on building up Georgian government institutions, the State Department says.


Some $277 million of that has gone in the past decade to training Georgia's armed forces in counterinsurgency, helping it fight terrorists and buying it uniforms, equipment and other military supplies as well as training troops to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.


And while the Pentagon is taking it slow and easy in these days of Georgian-Russian conflict, Gates promised that U.S. support for Georgia's military will be enduring.


Humanitarian assistance will be the first focus.


"The United States government then will turn to questions ... of both economic reconstruction and also what to do to help the Georgian security forces, looking to the longer term future," Gates said.


Such cooperation in the past has been a thorn in Russian's side.


And Gates said he believes last week's Russian invasion of Georgia was prompted not only by the confrontation over the disputed breakaway province of South Ossetia but rather "to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West economically, and politically and in security arrangements."


"I think that the Russians' further message was to all of the parts of the former Soviet Union as a signal about trying to integrate with the West and move outside of the longtime Russian sphere of influence," he added.


President Bush announced Wednesday that U.S. military resources and personnel would be sent into the conflict zone. Though they are only going on a humanitarian mission, he made a point of noting that "we will use U.S. aircraft, as well as naval forces" to distribute supplies. He warned Russia not to impede relief efforts in any way.


"The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia," Bush said.


As for military relations with Moscow, the United States this week canceled two multinational exercises that included Russia.


Asked about any additional U.S. military actions against Russia, Gates said the Pentagon plans to "re-examine the entire gamut of our military-to-military activities ... and will make changes as necessary and appropriate, depending on Russian actions in the days ahead."


"If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come," he said.



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