US to assess Georgia's military needs

In a delicate mission, a U.S. Defense Department team is coming to assess Georgia's military needs after its war with Russia, a show of support that is certain to stoke Moscow's anger.

U.S. help in rebuilding Georgia's armed forces, regardless of the scale, could harden lines in the standoff between Russia and the U.S. over the future of a pro-Western nation that straddles a key energy supply route.

Russia has withdrawn most of the forces that drove deep into Georgia after repelling a Georgian offensive against separatist South Ossetia. But it has announced a powerful long-term military presence in South Ossetia and another Moscow-backed breakaway province, Abkhazia.

The U.S. has focused publicly on economic aid for recovery and reconstruction of Georgia.

But the Pentagon announced this week that it would send a team to help examine Georgia's "legitimate needs." It did not say the U.S. would rebuild Georgia's military, but stressed that Georgia "should have the ability to defend itself and to deter renewed aggression."

The announcement came hours after Russia said it would keep nearly 8,000 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia — which it has recognized as independent nations — for the foreseeable future.

Major U.S. military aid to Georgia could raise a potentially explosive prospect: Two Russian-controlled regions facing off against an American-armed government in a region roiling with tension after a war.

But proponents of a robust U.S. program to aid Georgia's military argue that anything less might only encourage an assertive Kremlin to use force — or threats — to get its way in other parts of its traditional sphere of influence.

In fact, they contend, a capable Georgian military facing a powerful Russian presence could make for a less volatile atmosphere than before the war.

If Russia controls Abkhazia and South Ossetia "and leaves significant forces there, a Georgian incursion into either of those areas would become militarily unthinkable," Robert Hamilton, a defense analyst and regional expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote last week.

That would leave Georgia's armed forces with the job of protecting the territory under its control, he said, "a mission that they are certainly capable of fulfilling if the U.S. assists."

Russia, however, is highly unlikely to accept assurances of a purely defensive U.S. and Georgian intent. As a result, any U.S. military aid could cause tension.

The Kremlin accuses the U.S. of encouraging Georgia to attack South Ossetia and uses claims of U.S.-backed rearmament plans to justify its military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Thousands of Georgian troops have received training from the U.S. military, mostly for service in Iraq, where Georgia's 2,000-strong contingent was the third-largest in the American-led coalition. Russia cried foul when the U.S. flew the Georgians home during the fighting.

An unstated purpose of the U.S. training was to send a signal to Russia.

But according to Hamilton, the U.S. avoided training the Georgians in areas including artillery, armor and attack aviation because "they were seen as too provocative" amid Georgia's tense disputes over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

What the U.S. might provide now is far from clear.

Bush administration officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that any military buildup would be undertaken carefully, and the military has declined to give details about the assessment mission.

A U.S. defense official said earlier this week that the assessment team would start moving to Georgia on Friday, and that the review is expected to continue into early 2009. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The timing suggests the extent of U.S. military aid could be up to the next administration.

Georgian officials insist that they are in no rush to rebuild.

"We don't expect to get anything from the U.S., we haven't got anything recently from the U.S. and we will not be getting any large-scale hardware or military material assistance from the U.S.," President Mikhail Saakashvili told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.

Saakashvili claimed Georgia's military is largely intact, but critics say that's wishful thinking. Eight Georgian ships including its fledgling navy's flagship lie sunken in the harbor near the Russian-ransacked naval headquarters building in Poti, on the Black Sea.

Georgia has not publicly put numbers on military equipment losses.

Eyewitnesses saw several Georgian tanks destroyed in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, including four on a city square locals have dubbed 'Four Tanks Square.' The Georgians left behind scores of tanks and other vehicles when they fled the hard-hit Gori area.

Georgy Tavdgeridze, a Georgian defense analyst and adviser to an opposition political party, said he believes Russian claims that 65 Georgian tanks were seized are roughly accurate, but that the number of Georgian tanks destroyed was far smaller.

[Source: International Herald Tribune, Tbilisi, Geo, 13Sep08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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