Georgia's Saakashvili Seeking U.S. Weapons to Deter Russia

President Mikheil Saakashvili, on the eve of a visit by Vice President Biden, said the arms "would make any hotheads think twice" about military action.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, on the eve of a visit by Vice President Biden, said the arms "would make any hotheads think twice" about military action. (By Irakli Gedenidze -- Pool)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia, July 21 -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili urged the United States on Tuesday to supply his country with advanced defensive weapons, warning on the eve of a visit by Vice President Biden that a decision not to provide such arms would encourage a Russian invasion.

In a wide-ranging interview, Saakashvili said that discussions about a weapons deal remained at "very early stages" but that he planned to press Biden to speed up delivery of antiaircraft and antitank systems, saying such weaponry was "purely defensive" and "would make any hotheads think twice about further military adventures."

"I think the decision to help us is there," he added, noting recent meetings between Georgian and U.S. defense officials. "It's a matter of speeding up the process. . . . We want the country to still be around when those things start to arrive here. That's ultimately what's right now at stake."

The United States has been working to train and modernize the Georgian military for more than a decade, but Russia has warned strongly against new arms shipments to the former Soviet republic, which it routed in a brief war last year.

The Kremlin says that Georgia started the war by ordering an attack on the breakaway region of South Ossetia and that new weapons would encourage further aggression by Saakashvili. In January, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the cabinet to draw up economic sanctions against countries that supply arms to Georgia.

Saakashvili's request underscores the difficult choices facing the Obama administration as it seeks to "reset" and improve relations with Russia while continuing to support Georgia, Ukraine and other countries in the former Soviet sphere where the Kremlin says it has "privileged interests."

Georgia has also suggested that the United States and other countries join the European Union's civilian monitoring mission along its border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway enclave recognized by Russia as an independent state. U.S. participation would amount to a "long-term security guarantee," and the idea has received "positive feedback" from European and U.S. officials, Saakashvili said, but talks have been delayed.

Briefing reporters last week ahead of Biden's visit, Antony Blinken, the vice president's national security adviser, was noncommittal when asked whether Washington would refrain from supplying arms to Georgia in an attempt to reduce tensions in the region. "We are working with Georgia with defense reform and defense modernization," he said. "Our focus is on doctrine, on education and on training, and preparing for Georgia's future deployments to Afghanistan."

In recent years, the Pentagon has tried to improve the Georgian army's command-and-control systems and trained Georgian troops for peacekeeping and police operations in Iraq. But Saakashvili said the focus of U.S.-Georgian military cooperation has now shifted to "homeland defense."

He said he was "realistic" about the impact any new weapons would have on Georgia's ability to fend off Russia's much larger army for very long. But he argued that a stronger military deterrent would "strengthen our political hand" and help prevent a new conflict.

A decision by the United States and its NATO allies not to supply Georgia with defensive arms, on the other hand, would be seen as weakness, he said. "I think that would be the surest sign for the Russians: 'Go and get them,' " he said.

Saakashvili argued that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may be tempted to start another war because he faces "a pretty desperate situation," with the Russian economy in crisis, his domestic political standing in question and former Soviet republics increasingly ignoring Moscow's wishes. "There are hundreds of reasons to attack Georgia," Saakashvili said. "The only thing to stop him is a clear unequivocal message from the West that there's going to be very grave consequences."

Saakashvili said President Obama exceeded his expectations by forcefully defending Georgia's sovereignty during a recent visit to Moscow. He also said he has detected no "reluctance or hesitation" about providing Georgia with weapons.

Still, he said, "It's a much slower process than we would like it to be. It's just a matter of: Are we a regular country in a regular situation that can wait many years . . . or can we make it faster and more efficient?"

Saakashvili said the decision could affect the entire region, because other nations might give in to Russia's imperial ambitions if Georgia fell. "I think Biden gets it," he said, noting that Biden visited after the war and spoke about upgrading Georgia's defensive capabilities. "We hope he's still the old Biden."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company