WASHINGTON — American officials on Thursday ended speculation that the U.S. military might come to the rescue of Georgia's beleaguered government, confirming Russia's virtual takeover of the former Soviet republic and heralding Moscow's reemergence as the dominant power in eastern Europe.
"I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation. Is that clear enough?" Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters in his first public comments since the crisis began Aug. 7.
"The empire strikes back," said Ariel Cohen, a Russia expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Gates' comments came just 24 hours after President Bush dramatically announced in a televised White House appearance that American military aircraft and ships would be dispatched to carry humanitarian aid to Georgia and that the U.S. was expecting unfettered access to Georgia' ports and airports.
But Bush apparently had spoken out of turn, before Turkey, which by treaty controls access to the Black Sea, had agreed, and on Thursday, Pentagon officials said they doubted that U.S. naval vessels would be dispatched.
In Georgia, Russian troops held their positions in Gori, refusing passage to anyone wanting to travel either west or north from the strategic central Georgian city. Occasional explosions could be heard, apparently from mortar rounds, but there was no open fighting between the Russians and bedraggled Georgian soldiers who sat in trucks waiting for permission to re-enter the city.
Russian officers joked that they could race to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, just 40 miles away, if they wished, but they'd been given no such order.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected any references to preserving Georgia's "territorial integrity" and the deputy chief of staff of the Russian military said "there would be a change of geography" involving Georgia's primary port on the Black Sea.
Elsewhere, Poland, a former Soviet satellite that in the 1980s imposed martial law to fend off a threat of a Soviet invasion, reached agreement with the United States to base missiles there, something Russia has vigorously opposed.
The agreement also pledges the United States to come to Poland's defense should another country attempt a military move. The pledge was largely symbolic — Poland already has such a promise as a member of NATO — but symbolism might be important just one week shy of the 40th anniversary of when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to end a liberal pro-West government there.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called the agreement "a step toward real security for Poland in the future."
The developments alarmed some experts, who warned that the Kremlin appears intent on restoring the regional dominance it exerted during the Soviet era and might be attempting to seize de facto control over Georgia and a vital oil pipeline.
Gates, who for years was the CIA's top Soviet analyst, said he believed Russia's movements in Georgia are part of an effort by Russian leaders to "reassert their international status."
Many Georgians interviewed Thursday said they saw American intervention as their sole remaining chance at avoiding Russian domination. They spoke of the United States with an admiration rarely heard in many parts of the world; several pleaded with a McClatchy reporter to tell them when help was coming.
With the Georgian army defeated, the reports of an American aid shipment to Georgia sparked hopes that the U.S. military might follow.
Standing at a police checkpoint between Tbilisi and the city of Gori, Vakhtang Golinjashvili said that his village had been attacked by Russian troops. The checkpoint was surrounded by a throng of Georgian refugees, most of them walking toward Tbilisi with sacks of their belongings. “The only way out is the help of America,” Golinjashvili said.
Standing next to him, Iveri Nezvrishvili agreed.
"The Russians want to destroy us," he said. "The only things we can rely on are God and the Americans."
Russian's domination of Georgia also raised ominous questions about Russia's intentions in the rest of the Southern Caucasus region, which had been part of the Russian empire since the 19th Century until the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
The oil-rich region holds strategic importance for both Russia and the West. It is home to the BTC pipeline, which was built with money from oil giants BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Hess Corp. and carries oil produced from beneath the Caspian Sea through Georgia to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean.
Should the 1,100-mile pipeline fall under Russian control, Russia will have added to its ability to control energy resources flowing into Europe.
James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow who is currently a senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he doesn’t believe Russia wants to rebuild the Soviet Union. But he said the Kremlin is "clearly sending a message" to the United States and other Western countries that Russia dominates the region.
What will become of Georgia's pro-American government and its U.S.-educated president, Mikhail Saakashvili, remained the subject of speculation.
American officials have accused Moscow of waging the war in part to force Saakashvili out of office. Saakashvili, a one-time Washington lawyer, has been a source of deep irritation for the Kremlin as he pushed for Georgia to be granted membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The Russians have made no overt moves specifically aimed at Saakashvili's removal. But Russian troops have staged nightly drives toward Tbilisi that have resulted in fears that the capital would fall. Those maneuvers, some in the Georgian capital say, could be designed to undermine the public’s belief that Saakashvili is in control of the country.
The United States is trying to strike a delicate balance, supporting its Georgian allies without aggravating already fragile U.S.-Russian relations. Gates said Thursday that the United States does not want to re-start the Cold War conflict between the two countries.
"I think we have been frankly pretty restrained in this," he said.
Instead, the U.S. focus remains humanitarian, Gates said, noting the second of two C-17 cargo planes carrying sleeping bags, medical supplies, cots and blankets arrived Thursday morning. A 12-member assessment team is also in Georgia to determine how much more aid that nation needs.
While the secretary and the Pentagon have tried to defuse the situation, Gates said that if Russia doesn’t pull back its troops from Georgia, it could hurt Moscow-Washington relations "for years to come."
(Youssef and Montgomery reported from Washington, Lasseter from Gori, Georgia. Jonathan S. Landay also contributed to this report.)