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Wikileaked: U.S. ambassador to Russia: We can't arm Georgia due to the "reset"

December 10, 2010
Posted By Josh Rogin 

Ever since President Barack Obama took office, his administration has refused to sell military equipment to Georgia. In a newly released WikiLeaks cable, the U.S. ambassador to Russia made the argument that U.S. military support to Georgia is unwise because it would upset the U.S.-Russian "reset."

"A decision to move towards a more robust military relationship with Georgia will imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia," read a June 2009 cable signed by U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle. "Our assessment is that if we say ‘yes' to a significant military relationship with Tbilisi, Russia will say ‘no' to any medium-term diminution in tensions, and feel less constrained absent reverting to more active opposition to critical U.S. strategic interests."

The U.S.-Russia reset policy is not as important to Russia as its "absolute" priority of expanding its influence in Eurasia, Beyrle wrote. He said that sending military supplies to Georgia would cause Russia to backtrack on other areas of U.S.-Russia cooperation, including joint action to pressure Iran.

Besides, the Russians don't think that the United States possesses the power to force a resolution to the situation in the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has occupied since the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Beyrle explained in the leaked cable.

The Obama administration hasn't actually set forth a policy banning weapons sales to Georgia. They simply haven't sold weapons to Georgia and don't plan on doing so. That de facto ban on arms sales has riled some in Washington, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).

"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense," Lugar's staff wrote in a December 2009 report. "Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Contradicting Lugar, the Beyrle cable argues that arms sales would actually be harmful for Georgian national security, because it increases the likelihood of sparking another war that Georgia would surely lose.

"From our vantage point, a burgeoning military supply relationship with Georgia is more of a liability for Georgia than a benefit," Beyrle wrote. "We recognize that our suggested approach would be deeply dissatisfying to Saakashvili, but we see ... no way to neutralize the advantages of geography, size, and capabilities enjoyed by Russia."

Samual Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center of for American Progress, agreed. "Instead of the argument of whether we can fulfill this desire of the Georgian government, we have to step back and say ‘what is the U.S. interest here,'" he said. "There's no such thing as a military balance or a military deterrent in this case."
More broadly, Charap and top administration officials argue that the reset policy with Russia is actually good for Georgia, even if it means that the United States won't sell it weapons.
"I guess the question is: Is Georgia and is the rest of Europe more secure today than they were -- than Europe was when we first got here? And I think our answer is yes," Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, said in June.
"The reset protects Georgia because Russia now has a whole lot more to lose," added Charap. "Before, nobody in Moscow was going to think ‘what will they think in Washington,' because they didn't care. Now they care."

Other experts said that while the Beyrle cable reflects just one man's opinion, it fits into a broader pattern of an Obama administration that has ignored Georgia and other parts of central Asia due to a focus on improving U.S.-Russian ties.

"Having a reset policy is fine, but what the administration has not done is create a simultaneous comprehensive policy for the central Asian states," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.  "Right now 100 percent of our Georgia policy is about Russia, where it should be about 25 percent."

Petersen agreed that selling arms to Georgia is not a panacea, but should be combined with other types of assistance, including civil institution building, which is mentioned in Beyrle's cable.

"The Georgians love banging the table and saying give us lots of arms, but they are just as myopic as this cable was," Petersen said. "If you're going to do arms sales, you have to do 10 other things relating to bolstering Georgia."

The cable, by alluding to Russian corruption and heavy handedness in the disputed territories, fits into the larger picture of State Department reporting, as revealed by WikiLeaks, which privatelyemphasizes Russian misbehavior in Georgia. These cables, including reports on Russian military and intelligence attacks inside Georgia dating back to 2004, go well beyond what U.S. diplomats commented on in public.

Although Beyrle's cable does not represent U.S. official policy, some experts see a White House keen to adopt its candid recommendations.

"As the U.S. ambassador to Russia, naturally he is going to a focus on a better relationship with Russia, so you can't say this necessarily this trickles up to the Obama administration's policy," said Petersen. "But a senior official at State is clearly saying we should throw Georgia under the bus."