- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2008

Georgia is routinely described as Washington’s friend in the Caucasus region, but Georgia and the United States have found it hard to coordinate policies and public statements as regional tensions grew and led to the outbreak of hostilities nearly a week ago.

U.S. diplomats and military officials insist they delivered a consistent message both publicly and privately warning Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili against military action to reclaim South Ossetia, a separatist enclave inside Georgia that had established close economic and diplomatic ties to Moscow.

That message, they say, was reinforced just a month ago when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi for talks with senior Georgian officials.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the Georgians did not inform the U.S. government before mounting a major attack against Russian positions in South Ossetia the evening of Aug. 7.

But Mr. Saakhashvili and Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili have slammed what they say is the tepid Western reaction to Russia‘s harsh military response that destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars of military hardware. The war complicates Georgia’s U.S.-backed campaign to join the NATO military alliance, an effort Russia opposes.

“I feel [Western nations] are partly to blame,” Mr. Saakhashvili told reporters Wednesday. “Not only those who commit atrocities are responsible … but so are those who fail to react. In a way, Russians are fighting a proxy war with the West through us.”

Mrs. Tkeshelashvili, meeting with ministers of the European Union in Brussels, said Georgia’s Western allies failed to heed pleas to intervene in the crisis earlier, as tensions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second separatist enclave allied to Russia, were rising.

“We were appealing to everybody in the international community including Russia, saying stop,” she said. “Unfortunately, no help came.”

The misunderstandings and mixed signals continued even after President Bush announced plans Wednesday to use American military cargo planes and ships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgians caught up in the fighting.

Mr. Saakhashvili said Mr. Bush’s statement meant that U.S. forces would “take control” of Georgia’s ports and leading airfields to ensure the aid got through, implying a major escalation of the U.S. role in the conflict.

But Miss Rice and Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell immediately contradicted the Georgian leader.

“We do not need nor do we intend to take over any air or seaports in order to deliver humanitarian assistance to those caught in this conflict,” said Mr. Morrell. “It is simply not a requirement of this mission.”

Miss Rice Wednesday firmly rejected any suggestions that the Bush administration had privately given Georgia a green light to launch an expanded assault on Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s provincial capital, the move that Moscow claims sparked the war.

She argued it was Russia that had sparked an international crisis by retaliating not just in South Ossetia but in Abkhazia and in parts of Georgia far beyond the immediate “conflict zone.”

“Russia seriously overreached,” she said. Russia “engaged in activities that could not possibly be associated with the crisis in South Ossetia.”

Russian officials, who have long complained of Mr. Saakhashvili’s close ties to the West, charge that U.S. military and economic backing for Georgia led Tbilisi to overreach.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed Georgia’s elected government as a “virtual project” of Washington.

“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 told reporters.

In an Internet chat organized by The Washington Times, Malkhaz Mikeladze, deputy chief of mission for the Georgian Embassy in Washington, said there was clear and consistent communication with the U.S. government before the fighting broke out in earnest.

“Everybody - Georgia and its Western friends - was actively trying to persuade Russia to put a stop to heavy shelling of Georgian villages near Tskhinvali,” he said. “There were no other plans but to proceed with peace negotiations.”

But some analysts say Mr. Saakhashvili and Mr. Bush were not on the same page when the war broke out, despite the strong and long-standing U.S. support for Georgia. Mr. Bush’s fervent and frequent statements of support for Tbilisi may have led the Georgian leader to miscalculate.

“Saakhashvili may have thought he could take Tskhinvali, internationalize the crisis and turn around and see the United States and the West at his back,” said Charles Kupchan, a European specialist at the Eurasia Group. “He turned around and there was no one there.”

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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