Bush Asserts U.S. Presence With Georgia Aid Mission

President George W. Bush's dispatch of American air and naval forces to deliver humanitarian supplies to Georgia asserts a new U.S. military presence in the war-battered Caucasus region.

He also is bolstering the U.S. diplomatic posture, sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Georgia to confer with President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The president's move inserts U.S. forces -- albeit for peaceful purposes -- into a region where Russian soldiers are actively engaged in conflict with troops of a U.S. ally.

Bush is sending a message to the Russians that ``we can move ships to the Black Sea, we can move aircraft into Georgia if we choose to,'' said Olga Oliker, a senior policy analyst in San Francisco for the Rand Corporation. It also signals that ``we can help out the Georgians with something more than humanitarian aid,'' she said.

Bush, speaking today from the White House Rose Garden, directly challenged Russia to clear the way for aid to reach the beleaguered Georgians.

``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,'' the president said. He said the mission will be ``vigorous and ongoing.''

Transport Aircraft

The first military transport plane to take part in the mission landed in Georgia today, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. She said the decision to use military aircraft was made because they have ``the most capacity to quickly get humanitarian aid into the area.''

Rice told reporters later that Russian leaders shouldn't think they can invade neighboring countries without consequences. Russia's failure to abide by a cease-fire in Georgia will deepen its isolation, she said.

``This is not 1968,'' when Soviet forces could occupy a neighboring capital ``and get away with it,'' Rice told reporters in Washington, referring to the invasion of Czechoslovakia that year. Russia's further integration into the international system is now at risk given its actions in Georgia, Rice said.

`Negative Consequences'

Russia's initial reaction to Bush's move was chilly. The decision to use the U.S. military in the aid effort may have ``very negative consequences,'' said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the International Affairs Committee in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament. ``No military presence, neither Russian, nor American, nor European, would promote political dialogue,'' he said on Bloomberg Television.

At the start of the conflict, the U.S. withdrew about 100 military advisers who were training Georgian soldiers for duty in Iraq, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said in Tbilisi.

Bush demanded that Russia ``meet its commitments to cease all military activities in Georgia'' and withdraw all its forces from the country. He accused the Russians of taking up positions inside Georgia that would allow them to split the country and threaten the capital, Tbilisi.

Questioning Intentions

``Russia's ongoing actions raise serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region,'' the president said.

Bush said the U.S. ``stands with the democratically elected government'' of Georgia and he demanded that Russia respect Georgia's territorial integrity. He warned Russia not to attempt to overthrow Saakashvili, who has closely aligned himself with the U.S. since coming to power in 2004.

The president held out the threat that the U.S. would withdraw support for Russian aspirations to ``integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century.''

Russia is a member of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, whose leaders meet in an annual economic summit, and is seeking to join the World Trade Organization.

The U.S. is backing Georgia's entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a step that has raised Russian objections. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, said last night on PBS's ``Newshour'' program, that U.S. officials need to ``rethink their relationship with the current Georgian leadership.''

Start of Conflict

The fighting began on Aug. 7 with a Georgian military thrust into the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russian forces counterattacked, drove the Georgians back and penetrated into undisputed Georgian territory on two fronts.

Georgia today accused Russia of sending troops beyond the South Ossetia conflict zone in violation of a cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and agreed to by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Saakashvili. A Russian official denied the claim, saying the troops are attempting to pre-empt Georgia's ability to take offensive actions.

``We're concerned about reports that Russian forces have entered and taken positions in the port city of Poti, that Russian armored vehicles are blocking access to that port, and that Russia is blowing up Georgian vessels,'' Bush said.

The European Union brokered the cease-fire to end the fighting. EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to push the peace deal forward. The 27-nation bloc may send military personnel to monitor the cease-fire, said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

EU Consultations

Rice will stop in France to confer with Sarkozy, who holds the EU's rotating presidency, before heading for Tbilisi.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the first phase of the humanitarian mission began with the flight of a C- 17 military transport from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany carrying medical supplies and bedding. Russian officials have been notified of the flights, he said.

The Defense Department is still assessing what role U.S. naval forces, including the hospital ship USNS Comfort, will play in the relief effort, Whitman said.

Separately, a U.S. humanitarian assessment team of about 12 military personnel will be departing for Georgia to evaluate civilian needs, Whitman said.

``These are subject-matter experts in a number of fields who can determine what capabilities the United States has that they may need, immediate needs as well as potentially longer- term medical assistance,'' he said.

[Source: Bloomberg Agency, Washington, 13Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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