WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday it would examine how to help rebuild Georgia’s military after Tbilisi’s devastating war with Russia, risking renewed Russian wrath over military aid to the small U.S. ally.
But some lawmakers berated the Bush administration for its pro-Georgia policy, saying the Russian-Georgian war had highlighted U.S. weakness and harmed ties with Moscow -- and they questioned the cost of the U.S. commitment to Tbilisi.
“The Department of Defense is sending an assessment team to Tbilisi later this week to help us begin to consider carefully Georgia’s legitimate needs and our response,” Eric Edelman, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, told lawmakers.
“After assessment of these needs, we will review how the United States will be able to support the reconstruction of Georgia’s economy, infrastructure and armed forces,” he told the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee.
The conflict began last month when Georgia tried to retake the separatist pro-Moscow region of South Ossetia. Russia responded with an overwhelming counterattack and then sent troops deep into Georgia proper. Russia has not yet withdrawn despite a French-brokered cease-fire.
Until now Washington has focused its post-war aid to Georgia on humanitarian needs, and denied Russian charges that it might be sneaking in weapons with relief supplies.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has criticized Washington’s role in helping Georgia’s military before the conflict with Russia. Moscow has suggested the White House could have planned Tbilisi’s war with Russia to help Republicans win the coming U.S. presidential election.
Before the war erupted, the United States provided training and equipment to Georgia’s armed forces, much of it focused on preparing Georgian troops to deploy to Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition there.
But Edelman said on Tuesday Washington should not hesitate to resume its military aid to Georgia. “There should not be any question whether Georgia is entitled to military assistance from the United States” or from NATO allies, he said.
The Bush administration has also pledged $1 billion to help build the ex-Soviet republic’s economy and infrastructure.
SYMPATHY FOR RUSSIA
In a separate hearing on Tuesday in the U.S. House of Representatives, several lawmakers from both parties criticized the Bush administration approach as anti-Russian and to the detriment of U.S. interests.
“Our friends in Russia are as important as our friends in Georgia. We must find a balance,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat. She said $1 billion dollars in aid for Georgia was “over the top” and hoped Congress would cut it.
“The Russians are right! We’re wrong! Georgia started it, the Russians ended it,” Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, a California Republican, told Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried, who testified on administration policy to both the Senate panel and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rohrbacher said the situation with Georgia’s breakaway regions was clearly analagous to Kosovo, which was part of Serbia until it declared independence in February with U.S. support. For U.S. officials to keep saying there was no correlation “undermines our credibility,” he said.
The government in Georgia, home to pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to world markets, is staunchly pro-American and wants to join NATO. Russia opposes NATO expansion so close to its borders.
Both Edelman and Fried said that to their knowledge, U.S. military intervention in the conflict was never discussed. They also stressed that they had warned Georgia’s leaders before the conflict broke out that military action would be a mistake.
Russia agreed on Monday to withdraw its troops from Georgia’s heartland within a month, but there was no pledge to scale back its military presence in Georgia’s rebel regions.
In its first concrete protest at Moscow’s actions, the United States said on Monday it was rescinding a U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear pact, saying the time was not right for the deal “given the current environment.”
One analyst who formerly held Fried’s job said the United States must be careful about resuming military aid to Georgia.
“I don’t think that the U.S. can afford to back away from or terminate its military assistance relationship with Georgia under Russian pressure, but I do think that Washington needs to consider, in making such decisions, how it can best dissuade both sides from any further escalatory moves,” said Jim Dobbins, director of RAND Corp’s Defense Policy Center.
“How much and what kind of assistance is offered should be judged against that criteria,” he said.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Kristin Roberts and Todd Eastham
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