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July 23, 2009

U.S. Won't Supply Weapons to Georgia, By PETER SPIEGEL, Wall Street Journal

U.S. Won't Supply Weapons to Georgia,
By PETER SPIEGEL, Wall Street Journal
http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/07/20/holbrooke_heads_to_the_subcontinent


Tbilisi, GEORGIA -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told the Georgian parliament that it will not regain territories lost to Russia last year through war, and a senior U.S. official said the Obama administration was not prepared to supply Tbilisi with new defensive weaponry.

Although Mr. Biden gave a passionate call for Russia to withdraw its troops from northern Georgia in his speech before parliament, the twin messages reflect the delicate dance the Obama administration must perform in order to support a pro-Western ally while not risking its nascent outreach to Moscow.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has publicly asked for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons from the U.S., and a senior administration official traveling with Mr. Biden said that while the U.S. would continue training Georgian forces, such weapons would not be forthcoming for now.

"It's something they're very interested in," the official said of the defensive arms. "We feel like a key for Georgia here is the modernization of its military, building its capacities, and not at this stage, it's not so much a matter of weaponry or military hardware."

The official added, however, that training under way would enable the crippled Georgian military to use such weapons in the future, and that such armaments could be made available down the road.

The potential for U.S. weapons sales to Georgia has infuriated Moscow, which fought a brief war with Georgia last August and now occupies the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, said Thursday that Moscow would take "concrete measures" to prevent Georgia from rearming.

"We are deeply concerned about the actions of the Georgian leadership aimed at the remilitarization of the country, which are amazingly being met with a calm and even a positive reaction by some governments," Mr. Karasin said, according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.

Mr. Karasin's remarks appeared to be timed to raise pressure on both the U.S. and Georgia during Mr. Biden's last day of a two-day visit to Tbilisi.

The senior administration official said the issue of military aid to Georgia was discussed in a bilateral meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Saakashvili. But U.S. and Georgian officials said no specific request by the Georgian president for weaponry had been denied.

"Nothing was asked for and nobody said no," said Giga Bokeria, Georgia's deputy foreign minister and a close aide to Mr. Saakashvili. "It was a very good meeting, and an important one."

Mr. Biden's four-day trip to Ukraine and Georgia was specifically timed by the White House to come on the heels of President Barack Obama's summit in Moscow, and as he had in Ukraine a day earlier, Mr. Biden insisted that the White House's attempt to "reset" relations with Russia would not come at the expense of the former Soviet republic.

And while officials said they were not going to sell new weapons to Tbilisi, the senior administration official said the White House was more open to another Georgian request: that the U.S. participate in the European Union monitoring mission in Georgia. "We would certainly consider that if asked," the official said.

EU officials are increasingly anxious about pressure on the bloc's monitoring mission, a force of around 200 unarmed observers who in recent months have become the sole international presence on the ground in Georgia. In June, Moscow forced the closure of the United Nations monitoring mission in Abkhazia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observer mission in South Ossetia.

As a result, the EU is keen to further internationalize its own mission in Georgia, first of all by including U.S. personnel, in order to strengthen its capacity as a political deterrent to any further instability, according to an internal EU diplomatic memo seen by the Wall Street Journal. The EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia, set up after last year's five day war, patrols areas of Georgia around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow has not allowed them inside the two separatist territories, which Russia has garrisoned and recognized as independent.

But even as he reiterated the new administration's strong support for the former Georgia's independence and its desire to join NATO, Mr. Biden also delivered what the senior official termed "tough love" on issues of civil liberties.

Opposition figures have accused Mr. Saakashvili of increasing authoritarianism, including using government institutions to harass and undercut opposition parties. Thousands of opposition protesters staged large rallies in the capital earlier this year.Mr. Biden said he expected Mr. Saakashvili to live up to recent promises to strengthen democratic institutions in the country, and the senior administration official said the White House intends to monitor the Georgian president's progress.

"Your Rose Revolution will only be complete when the government is transparent, accountable and…when issues are debated inside this chamber, not only out on the streets," Mr. Biden said. "There is no specific checklist for democracy, but there are significant concrete steps that need to be taken to deepen any democracy."

—Marc Champion contributed to this article.
Write to Peter Spiegel at peter.spiegel@wsj.com

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