Despite angry words, Pentagon seeks to avoid Russia conflict

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 13, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Despite an angry pronouncement and a threat of U.S. action from President Bush, the U.S. military is determined to avoid inserting itself between its Georgian allies and its former superpower rival, Russia.

The U.S. military is treading a delicate balance, trying to show its support for the struggling Georgian government without aggravating already fragile U.S.-Russian relations or, even worse, becoming embroiled in a fight with Russia.

On Wednesday, the U.S. dipped its toe into the conflict for the first time, sending a C-17 military cargo plane carrying 30 tons of medical supplies, cots, sleeping bags and blankets from Germany to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. A second is slated to arrive Thursday.

Even that relatively small shipment, however, could draw the U.S. into a conflict inadvertently. Shortly after Bush announced the American aid mission, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the U.S. would have to choose between its "special project" of helping Georgia's president and a "real partnership" with Russia.

At the same time, Georgia's president tried to pull the U.S. into backing his embattled army. In an interview with CNN, President Mikhail Saakashvili said the U.S. should help Georgia because both nations shared the same values.

He said Bush's pledge of aid meant that U.S. troops would control Georgian airports and seaports.

The Pentagon quickly refuted that notion, though it was unclear who'd be in control of the ports and airports or how the humanitarian aid would be distributed — or by whom. Pentagon officials had no comment on those questions.

To guard against any misunderstandings, officials said, the U.S. is notifying Russia before C-17 flights carrying humanitarian aid land in Tbilisi, even though the aircraft will fly only through Georgian airspace and the U.S. has no obligation to report them to Russia.

The United States also has told Russia which Tbilisi hotel is housing 17 Marines who were training Georgian troops so that the Russians will know not to attack it, Pentagon officials said.

The U.S. has decided to keep those Marines and 60 U.S. Army trainers in Tbilisi to avoid any appearance that it's abandoning its Georgian allies, military officials said.

"We don't want any potential misunderstandings or miscalculations," said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Pentagon also is considering what kind of ship to send to support the humanitarian mission, should it be ordered to send one, an order that Pentagon officials said hadn't yet been given.

Naval officials said the kind of ship sent would signal U.S. intentions. Among the options are the USS Comfort, a hospital ship docked in Baltimore, or one of several destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean. The Black Sea, on which Georgia's coast lies, is too shallow for an American aircraft carrier.

Perhaps most notably, the U.S. hasn't called on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who for years was one of the CIA's top Soviet analysts, to play a public role in the crisis. Military officials said that decision was made because the U.S. didn't want to send any signal that its military is leading the American response to the conflict, despite Gates' background in Soviet matters.

Instead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also a Soviet expert, will travel to France and then to Tbilisi.

Still, the Bush administration wants to preserve its role as Georgia's military patron — when the time is right.

"Once the dust settles, we can then look at assisting Georgians in the rebuilding of their military," Morrell said. "They are our ally."

More from McClatchy:

Images of War

U.S. sends aid to Georgia as Russia violates cease-fire

Civilians were only targets left as Russia kept bombing

Unchallenged air power was Russia's trump card

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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