WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took U.S. military action off the table to help the embattled Georgian army against Russian troops that remain the country, despite a purported ceasefire.
In his first public comments since the conflict began Aug. 7, Gates made it clear that the U.S. would not answer pleas from Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili that the U.S. military protect his country's ports and airports.
"I don’t see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation. Is that clear enough?" Gates told reporters in a briefing Thursday morning.
The comments came as officials in Russia made it clear that they favor redrawing Georgia's borders.
"One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
Gates said the U.S. focus in Georgia would remain humanitarian. He noted that the second of two C-17 cargo planes carrying sleeping bags, medical supplies, cots and blankets arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, 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."
The U.S. is trying to strike a delicate balance, supporting its Georgian allies without aggravating already fragile U.S.-Russian relations. The secretary said Thursday that the U.S. doesn't want to re-start another Cold War conflict between the two countries.
"I think we have been frankly pretty restrained in this," he said.
The secretary, who for years was the CIA's top Soviet analyst, said his personal assessment was that Russia's actions in Georiga was retaliation for Georgia's outreach to the West, including applying to NATO for admission.
Russian leaders are trying to "reassert their international status," Gates said.
On Wednesday, President Bush said the U.S. would use its Navy resources to get aid to Georgia but so far, U.S. Navy officials said they still have no orders to deploy their hospital ship, the USS Comfort, or any destroyers.
An aircraft carrier would be too big for the Black Sea's shallow waters. In addition, under the Montreux Convention the U.S. would essentially need Turkish approval to send any ship over 10,000 tons into the Black Sea.