Biden Says Russia Used 'Pretext' to Invade Georgia in 2008

Vice President Biden and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in a presidential palace in Tbilisi. Biden has voiced strong support for Georgia.
Vice President Biden and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in a presidential palace in Tbilisi. Biden has voiced strong support for Georgia. (By Irakli Gedenidze -- Associated Press)
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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 24, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia, July 23 -- Breaking with the cautious tone the Obama administration has adopted toward the Kremlin, Vice President Biden told a room of Georgian children Thursday that Russia "used a pretext to invade your country" in the hope of wrecking its economy and persuading its people that "democracy doesn't work."

At the end of a trip aimed at assuring Ukraine and Georgia of continued U.S. support as Washington seeks to "reset" relations with Russia, Biden also warned Georgia's leaders that they had "no military option" for recovering territories lost during last year's war with Russia. And he urged President Mikheil Saakashvili to deepen democratic reforms.

The message of what one senior U.S. official called "tough love" reflected the balance the Obama administration has tried to strike as it seeks to build a new partnership with Moscow while rejecting the Kremlin's claim to "privileged interests" in the former Soviet territories.

Agreeing at the last minute to take questions from the Georgian refugee children, though, Biden appeared to go off script, delivering on national television one of the administration's strongest criticisms of the Russian government to date.

"What we can do is make clear to the world, and to the Russians particularly, that we stand with you, and that if they fail to meet their commitments, that it is a problem for them," Biden said, referring to a cease-fire pact that Georgia says Russia is violating.

"A lot of you think maybe Russia did what they did, and they paid no price," Biden continued. "They paid a pretty big price already diplomatically. The countries that surround Russia, even those that have been very, very loyal to Russia in their freedom, are now saying very harsh things."

"Russia has isolated itself more," he added. "It has not expanded its opportunities."

Moscow maintains that Georgia started the war by attacking a separatist enclave, forcing Russian intervention to prevent a genocide.

By accusing Russia of invading on a "pretext," Biden repeated the position he took when he flew to Georgia during the war as a presidential candidate. But he went further than President Obama did after he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow this month. Obama endorsed Georgia's territorial integrity but referred only to "disagreements on Georgia's borders."

Biden told the children that he would "tell the rest of the world we should not in any circumstance recognize the independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia," the two breakaway regions that Russia backed as sovereign states after it won the August war.

"Make Georgia a great success," he said. "When there's freedom and opportunity, then that's the thing that will unite Georgia once again."

In an address to Parliament, Biden called on Russia to honor the cease-fire it signed by withdrawing its forces to their prewar positions "and ultimately out of Georgia."

In a sign that the visit was being scrutinized in Moscow, the Russian government issued a stern warning that it would not allow Georgia to rearm. "We will continue to prevent the rearmament of Saakashvili's regime and will take concrete measures against this," Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the Itar-Tass news agency.

In an interview Tuesday, Saakashvili said he would urge Biden to speed delivery of antiaircraft and antitank weapons that could deter and slow a Russian attack. He said a U.S. decision not to provide the arms would encourage a Russian invasion.

U.S. and Georgian officials said that the issue was discussed at length during the summit but that Saakashvili did not repeat the request. Biden made no commitment on arms supplies, they said, adding that the Pentagon will continue working to strengthen the Georgian army through training.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company