Upping the ante in Moscow-Washington tension over the border war between Russia and its former satellite state, Bush announced Wednesday that the U.S. military is flying humanitarian aid to Georgia, with his secretary of state to follow. Georgia’s president, however, is spinning this as the first step in a U.S. military intervention.
Nerves frayed all day after a Russian tank battalion occupied the Georgian city of Gori, a move Georgia condemned as flagrant defiance of a Western-brokered agreement struck only hours earlier. Gori is only 40 miles from Tbilisi, the capital, and rumors circulated all day of an attack on Tbilisi. Meanwhile, hundreds of Russian soldiers poured over the border from Russia into the separatist enclave of South Ossetia, where attack helicopters and fuel trucks accompanied a long convoy of trucks.
With Mr. Bush’s announcement, the United States signaled its most active involvement in a long-simmering border conflict between Georgia and Russia that flared into open fighting last week. The conflict escalated precipitously into a cold-war-style standoff between Russia and the West.
The United States, Mr. Bush said, “stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia and insists that its sovereignty and territorial integrity be respected.” He said a transport plane was already on its way to Georgia, carrying medical supplies and a contingent of Army and Navy forces to carry out an aid mission.
The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, hailed the decision as a “turning point,” but also immediately cast the American presence in military terms.
“What I expected specifically from America was to secure our airport and to secure our seaports,” he said, in a telephone interview minutes after Mr. Bush spoke. “The main thing now is that the Georgian Tbilisi airport will be permanently under control.”