- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

UPDATED:

President Bush on Wednesday announced he will send U.S. military forces into the small Caucasus nation of Georgia to deliver “humanitarian aid,” a move clearly intended to bolster the Western-leaning nation after an invasion by the Russian army.

Mr. Bush, in a statement to reporters at the White House, also announced that he is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a trip to France and then to Georgia, on a mission to “rally the free world at the defense of a free Georgia.”

The president spoke with Ms. Rice on his right and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on his left, and said he had asked Mr. Gates to “begin a humanitarian mission to the people of Georgia headed by the United States military.”

The announcement was hailed by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as “definitely an American military presence” and “a turning point.” In an interview with the New York Times, he said he expected the U.S. military to secure Georgian seaports and its main airport.

White House press secretary Dana Perino, however, expressed skepticism at that idea.

Mr. Saakashvili, a Harvard-trained lawyer, said in multiple interviews Wednesday that the initial U.S. response to the conflict was weak and ineffective.

“Frankly, some of the first statements from Washington were perceived by the Russians almost as a green light for doing this because they were too soft,” he said on CNN.

“Everything the Americans had achieved from the Cold War is being undermined and destroyed right now,” Mr. Saakashvili said. “America is losing the whole region.”

Mr. Bush called for Russia to cease all military operations and withdraw its troops out of Georgia, expressing concern about reports that Kremlin forces are occupying the central Georgian city of Gori and have destroyed Georgian ships in the port city of Poti, in violation of a cease-fire agreement reached Tuesday.

The president said the U.S. military humanitarian mission “will be vigorous and ongoing.”

“A U.S. C-17 aircraft with humanitarian supplies is on its way,” Mr. Bush said. “And in the days ahead we will use U.S. aircraft as well as naval forces to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies.”

“We expect Russia to honor its commitment to let in all forms of humanitarian assistance. We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mocked the U.S. alliance with Georgia, and said that the U.S. will have to choose between allying itself with Russia or Georgia.

“We understand that this current Georgian leadership is a special project of the United States, but one day the United States will have to choose between defending its prestige over a virtual project or real partnership which requires joint action,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to a Reuters dispatch.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev declared Aug. 13 a day of mourning for the humanitarian disaster in Georgia.

Russia contends that they only responded to an attack last week by Georgian forces in a northern province of the country claimed by both Georgia and Russia. Russia claims that Georgian forces committed atrocities against Russian citizens in the disputed area of South Ossetia.

Georgia, a former Soviet Republic of about 4 million people, has been humiliated militarily by Russia during a nearly weeklong conflict.

About 2,000 people are estimated dead in the fighting, about 100,000 have been displaced, and there are unconfirmed reports of atrocities being committed by Russians against Georgian citizens.

Mr. Bush said he was “concerned about reports that Georgian citizens of all ethnic origins are not being protected.”

“All forces, including Russian forces, have an obligation to protect innocent civilians from attack,” he said.

In addition, Russia has destroyed much of Georgias military arsenal, which had been compiled with help from the U.S. government in an effort to make the fledgling democracy eligible for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Russia sees the NATO aspirations of Georgia and fellow former Soviet bloc nation Ukraine as threats to their standing in the region, and blocked the two countries from receiving invitations to begin the membership process in April.

Mrs. Perino said that if Georgia had been invited into the Membership Application Plan process at that time, that might have prevented Russia from invading Georgia.

“We might not be in this situation at all,” she said.

Georgia and Ukraine are scheduled to receive reviews of their membership aspirations in December.

Because NATO requires member countries to achieve a modernization of their armies, Russia may have dealt Georgia a serious setback by destroying much of their military arsenal.

Mrs. Perino, however, said the extent of damage to Georgias military was so far uncertain and said U.S. officials “hope that it is on track to give them [MAP] status.”

Ms. Rice, who canceled a press conference at the State Department to meet with Mr. Bush earlier Wednesday morning, will travel first to France to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr. Sarkozy is serving as the current chairman of the European Union and was in Moscow and the Georgian capital of Tblisi Tuesday to negotiate the cease-fire.

Ms. Rice on Tuesday said of Mr. Sarkozys mediation, “I believe that they believe that they have made some progress, and we welcome that, and we certainly welcome the EU mediation.”

In Tblisi, the president said Ms. Rice “will personally convey America’s unwavering support for Georgia’s democratic government.”

Mr. Saakashvili has warned that Russia will not stop at occupying Georgia if Europe and the U.S. do not act to check the Kremlin’s regional ambitions.

Mr. Bush has called Russias actions in Georgia “disproportionate” to their stated aims of rebuffing an attack by Georgian forces last Thursday on the disputed northern Georgian region of South Ossetia.

He said that Russia in recent years has sought to “integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century,” but that their aggressions in Georgia have put relations with the West “at risk.”

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