TBILISI (Reuters) - The United States expects to help Georgia rebuild its military after it was swept aside by Russia’s much larger forces in the conflict over South Ossetia, a top U.S. general said on Thursday.
General John Craddock’s comments, made during a trip to Georgia, were enthusiastically taken up by President Mikheil Saakashvili, who said his country needed more military muscle.
“One would assume ... we would have to help them rebuild because they are a partner in the war on terror, they’ve been helpful. They are going to ask us, I am sure, to replace and rebuild,” Craddock, who is in charge of the U.S. European Command, told reporters.
He said he would assess Georgia’s needs during his visit, due to end on Friday, and report back to the Pentagon.
“I think that (assistance) is probably going to happen. It’s a matter of how much and how fast,” he added.
Saakashvili told a news briefing after meeting Craddock: “We need to rebuild the military, we need to make them stronger.”
The Georgian leader added: “We need new people trained and we need new equipment and we will work very closely with the U.S. to get all of this.”
Conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted when Georgia tried to reimpose control over its breakaway, pro-Russian South Ossetia region on Aug. 7-8.
Russia responded with a strong counter-attack that overwhelmed much smaller Georgian forces. It sent its troops deep inside Georgia proper, well beyond South Ossetia and a second separatist region, Abkhazia.
Craddock said the Russian withdrawal from Georgia appeared “slower than it ought to be” under the terms of a French-brokered peace accord, and it was unclear if it would have pulled out completely by Friday as Moscow has promised.
Craddock said the purpose of his visit was also to assess humanitarian needs and he travelled to Tbilisi with the head of the U.S. government aid agency USAID. “My intent here is to understand better and find out how we can be more helpful if that’s needed,” he said.
USAID head Henrietta Fore said the visit aimed to show that “the American people are behind the people of Georgia” and to look at how to help displaced people and families whose homes have been destroyed.
U.S. military aircraft have flown in more than 200 short tons (180,000 kg) of relief supplies, including ready-made meals, shelter materials and bedding in the past week to assist Georgians forced from their homes by the fighting, U.S. officials said.
Analysts say Russia has used the conflict to deal a firm blow to the military capacity of aspiring NATO-member Georgia, which has been upgrading its resources with a view to joining the U.S.-dominated military alliance.
In what was seen as a clear message to NATO, the Russian army destroyed in the past week a hoard of Georgian arms and ammunition at the Senaki base in western Georgia, a showpiece built to NATO standards under Saakashvili.
Craddock, who is also NATO’s top operational commander, did not make any recommendations about NATO’s response but said the South Ossetia conflict showed NATO allies they should pursue efforts to make their armies “agile, flexible and deployable”.
“We need to take a look at the strategic picture now and we need NATO, the European Union to discuss that fact that many assumptions we have made may have changed and we need to take a hard look at this new reality,” he said.