The United States does not intend to give or sell Georgia weapons, or to participate in the European Union monitoring mission in Georgia, senior US officials are saying.
In advance of US Vice President Joseph Biden's July 22-23 visit to Georgia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent up a trial balloon, telling the Washington Post that he wanted Washington to provide "defensive" weapons like antitank and antiaircraft systems. Saakashvili argued that Russia intends to attack Georgia again, adding that an infusion of American weapons "would make any hotheads think twice about further military adventures." Russia and Georgia fought a brief war last August, culminating in what appears to be Tbilisi's permanent loss of two separatist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The United States declined to act on Saakashvili's request, said Celeste Wallander, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Policy. Nevertheless, Washington is helping Georgia with a "responsible and robust defense cooperation program" focused on training and education, she said.
"Georgia is not ready for the kind of weapons acquisitions that the president floated," Wallander continued. "In the future, that's not off the table, but certainly the United States . . . does not believe Georgia is ready for that kind of defense acquisition."
Wallander was speaking July 29 at a hearing of the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe. The hearing focused on the issue of "resetting" relations with Russia, and on the recent trips of President Barack Obama to Moscow and Biden to Georgia and Ukraine.
In addition to saying no to weapons sales, Wallander stated that the United States does not intend at this time to participate in an EU mission that monitors a 2008 peace agreement signed by Russia and Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. She revealed that the EU had not invited Washington to participate, and so discussion of American participation was "premature."
One member of the committee, Representative William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, agreed that the United States should not get more heavily involved in Georgia's military situation. "I'm really concerned about being used, and I would be adamantly opposed to the sale of weapons to Georgia," Delahunt said. "If we're going to reset this relationship [with Russia], why add fuel to a volatile situation?" An unidentified Russian Foreign Ministry official was quoted by the Interfax news agency on July 28 as saying an American presence in the EU monitoring mission would substantially increase the "likelihood of border provocations."
Wallander reaffirmed Washington's support of Georgia to choose its own foreign policy and rejected the notion that Russia had a privileged sphere of influence in its neighborhood. Those sentiments were echoed by Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who also testified at the hearing.
The hearing additionally discussed Russia's actions concerning US efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Gordon suggested that Washington felt it could get stronger Russian support on that issue and that a program to develop a "Joint Ballistic Missile Threat Assessment," primarily focused on Iran and North Korea, would help.
A US team of analysts of Iran's nuclear program is traveling to Russia in late July and will meet with Russian counterparts, Gordon said. "We hope this exercise will convince them of what we believe," Gordon said. "By sharing with them our analysis, we hope to persuade them that, as we have said many times and as the president has said, if we don't see a response from Iran soon we will indeed need to turn up the pressure on Iran."
But Gordon said that such efforts were hampered by Russia's "zero-sum thinking," the belief that any victory by the United States in the foreign policy arena is necessarily a loss for Russia. "I think sometimes Russians are torn between their own interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and their own desire to prevent us from getting a big diplomatic success in the Middle East," he said.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.