WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday announced at least $1 billion in aid to help ally Georgia rebuild after its war with Russia, but U.S. officials said it was too soon to consider military assistance.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unveiled the plan to help reconstruct Georgia’s economy and infrastructure that were destroyed by the Russian military as it crushed Georgia’s attempt to regain control of the separatist enclave of South Ossetia.
Rice sidestepped a question about why Washington has not taken threatened steps to punish Moscow for its military incursion into Georgia, although she said it was “high time” that Russian troops withdrew in accordance with an internationally negotiated ceasefire.
“The free world cannot allow the destiny of a small independent country to be determined by the aggression of a larger neighbor,” Rice told reporters at the State Department.
With U.S. help, Georgia would “survive, rebuild and thrive,” she said.
A multiyear aid commitment to Georgia “will begin now under President Bush and we believe strongly will endure in the next U.S. administration,” Rice said.
A new U.S. president will be elected in November and take over in January. Both the candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have expressed support for Georgia in its conflict with Russia.
Some parts of the package will need approval of Congress, where there is also broad backing for helping Georgia.
But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, said she feared some lawmakers might balk at the price tag.
“I don’t know if Congress is ready to swallow that big of a bite,” she told Reuters by phone at the Republican Party convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The aid plan was unveiled as Vice President Dick Cheney began a trip to the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine to show U.S. support for its allies in the region after Russia’s military intervention.
Georgia and Azerbaijan are important links in the chain of a Western-backed energy route that bypasses Russia.
U.S. officials were at pains to stress that the package for Georgia included no military aid. Moscow has accused Washington of resupplying Georgia with military hardware under the cover of humanitarian aid, a charge that Washington denies.
“It is not yet time to look at the questions of assistance for the military side,” Rice said.
RUSSIA ‘DONE ITSELF IN’
Russia’s decision to send troops into Georgia last month and its subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebel Georgian region, as independent states has drawn condemnation from Western governments but few tangible actions to punish Moscow.
Rice said Russia was not achieving its objectives through its actions in Georgia and again said Moscow was putting its participation in global clubs at risk.
“Russia has done itself in on this,” she said.
But Rice did not say when the United States might take punitive steps such as scrapping a civilian nuclear deal with Russia. The White House has said U.S. officials may cancel that pact.
In another move that could anger Moscow, Bush on Wednesday directed federal agencies to expand economic aid for Georgia to help the small strategic ally recover.
Bush said he directed the U.S. trade representative, Susan Schwab, to negotiate an enhanced bilateral investment treaty with Tbilisi and widen preferential access for exports from Georgia into the United States.
Rice said the first tranche of $570 million from the aid package would go to Georgia by the end of 2008 and it would be up to the next U.S. administration to funnel the rest.
Obama has endorsed a call by his vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, for $1 billion in U.S. aid to Georgia.
Two influential senators who are close to McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, have urged that Georgia, which wants to join the NATO alliance, be given anti-aircraft and anti-armor systems to deter any renewed Russian attack.
But U.S. officials said that while Georgia had the right to develop its military, it was too soon for such discussions.
“Before one talks about military assistance it’s important to think through and assess what the situation is, what the needs are,” said deputy assistant secretary of state Matt Bryza. “The Georgian government needs to take some decisions of its own about what its future force structure would look like, based on what its own goals are.”
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by John O’Callaghan
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