Cheney visit: U.S. treads tightrope on Georgia aid

The Bush administration announces $1 billion in aid but no military assistance.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters
To the rescue? US Vice President Dick Cheney (l.), listened to Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili at a news briefing in Tbilisi Thursday.

The Bush administration's announcement of $1 billion in humanitarian and economic aid – but no military assistance – to Georgia in the wake of its war with Russia suggests the delicate balancing act the United States will attempt as it confronts the repercussions of a newly assertive Russia.

The substantial aid package, which would make the small republic on Russia's southern flank a top recipient of US assistance, indicates the resolve of President Bush to support emerging Westward-leaning democracies in the area of the former Soviet Union.

At the same time, the absence at least for now of any assistance to Georgia's American-trained and –equipped military suggests a desire not to further provoke a Russia that considers the young republics on its borders part of its "near abroad." Despite terse accusations and mocking exchanges between the US and Russia in recent days, the Bush administration wants to avoid fully alienating a Russia that has an important role in other international issues.

The humanitarian and economic aid, which would help to house and feed war refugees in the short term and to rebuild infrastructure, was announced on the eve of Vice President Dick Cheney's visit Thursday to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Mr. Cheney criticized Russian actions in the brief war last month, while mounting a muscular defense of Georgia's hopes to join Western institutions including NATO – an aspiration that riles Russia.

"Georgia will be in our alliance," Cheney said, reiterating US support for Georgia's candidacy to NATO. Despite the American position, NATO leaders put off Georgia's application at a summit earlier this year, in part over Russian objections.

Cheney's brief stop in Georgia, part of a swing through former Soviet republics that included Azerbaijan and Ukraine, signaled the tougher branch of the two-pronged US approach. "America will do its duty to work with the governments of Georgia and our other friends and allies to protect our common interests and to uphold our values," the vice president said in Tblisi.

Cheney also made special note of Georgia's willingness to send troops to Iraq. But in Washington, US officials emphasized that the aid package includes no military assistance. In announcing the new assistance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared to carefully choose her words when she said the aid was meant to "help Georgia sustain itself" – rather than to defend itself.

The aid package, which would put Georgia just after Israel and Egypt in American assistance, is largely seen in Washington as a pragmatic response to the Russia-Georgia conflict.

"It's an appropriate and realistic response to the situation in that the US is a close ally of Georgia … and wants to ensure that Georgia reemerges from this conflict as a stable and viable state," says Charles Kupchan, a specialist in European affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The objective is to ensure that Georgia doesn't collapse and end up a ward of Russia."

Still, others see the US position as an attempt to return Europe's geopolitical map to where it was before the Georgia-Russia conflict – an approach that is unlikely to succeed because it fails to come to grips with the challenge of an emboldened Russia.

"This is an attempt to hit the restart button, but it really doesn't do anything to put pressure on Russia," says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The US aid merely puts off a looming decision for US, NATO, and Europe, he says. Should the Eastern frontier of NATO end at the Baltic states with republics farther east accepting a neutral status, or should a "coalition of the willing" of the US and some partners largely from the "new" Europe press to extend Western influence farther east – without NATO support.

The European Union's reluctance to take tough measures against Russia at its summit Monday suggests transatlantic divisions will dog Western response to Russia's new assertiveness, says Mr. Gvosdev. The EU response "really weakened the US hand," he says.

Many European officials, especially among America's traditional allies, are already critical of the US response to the crisis. There is a widespread feeling in Europe that the US only annoyed Russia with its enthusiastic support for Georgia's entry into NATO at the March summit. "The US is seen here as completely out of the picture, in terms of a policy response. Mr. Cheney's trip to the Caucausus is extremely dangerous, very intrusive, guaranteed to provoke Russia," says Thomas Gomart of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

Contrary to the American view that the EU has so far failed to step up to the plate on Russia, many in Europe say an EU response is the only one likely to make a difference in the long run.

Says Mr. Gomart, "The more the EU is united, the more it is possible to contain Russia."

Robert Marquand in Paris contributed to this report.

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