The US military came within 60 miles of the Russian army yesterday in Georgia as an American warship arrived in the Black Sea port of Batumi to deliver humanitarian aid to the embattled Caucasus country.
The USS McFaul arrived with a cargo of beds, mattresses and other supplies to help the thousands of Georgian refugees displaced from their homes during the last two weeks. It dropped anchor in waters just outside Batumi and its cargo was ferried to the sub-tropical palm-lined shoreline by smaller boats.
It is the first of three US military ships that will come to Batumi with aid, and is the strongest signal yet of Washington’s displeasure with Russian actions in Georgia and the continuing Russian military presence in the country.
Just 55 miles up the coastline in Poti, a small contingent of armed Russian “peacekeepers” remains. Moscow has rejected calls to immediately pull out of the port city, which is far from any “buffer zone” around the conflict areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia where it has won the right to keep peacekeeping troops. Previously, Russian troops have destroyed the port at Poti, taken Georgian soldiers captive there, and seized four American Humvees waiting for shipment out of the port.
The Russian army withdrew the bulk of its soldiers from Georgia on Friday and eyewitnesses also reported a large withdrawal of Russian troops from the conflict zone of South Ossetia back into Russia proper over Friday and Saturday. But there was little sense that the withdrawal was down to Western pressure; instead it was a case of “mission accomplished”, having humiliated Georgia and its allies and destroyed military and much civilian infrastructure in the country.
There was also a sting in the tail of the occupation yesterday as a train carrying oil products, probably originating in Azerbaijan, exploded on the country’s main east-west railway a few kilometres outside Gori. The Russians last week blew up a bridge on the railway, which when Moscow’s forces were occupying Gori and impeding traffic on the main road was the only option for goods to be transported across the country.
Georgian officials said they believed the blast was caused by a mine left on the tracks by departing Russian forces, who until Friday had controlled the area where the blast occurred. One-third of the train’s wagons were on fire, and plumes of black smoke rose up into the sky.
The US naval mission to Batumi follows several flights into Georgia by US military aircraft delivering military aid. While many feel that the Americans have offered little in the way of concrete action to protect their biggest ally in the post-Soviet space, it’s clear that the missions have irked Moscow.
The chief Russian spokesman on the situation in Georgia, deputy chief of the general staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said that NATO countries were using the humanitarian missions as a “cover” for building up naval forces in the Black Sea area.
A source close to the Georgian government said that there had been “serious discussions” among US officials on whether to send the ship to Poti after it had unloaded in Batumi, risking an actual confrontation between US and Russian troops, but it appeared that the option had been shelved. Still, the Georgians were welcome for the aid and praised the American response, even if privately many feel that Washington could have done more to help Georgia in its time of need.
"The United States is our great friend,” said Defence Minister David Kezerashvili to journalists in Batumi. “They have arrived at such a difficult time. It means we are not alone.”
The repercussions of the crisis in Georgia continued to be felt in Kiev yesterday, as Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko used a speech at a military parade to mark Ukrainian Independence Day to renew calls for his country to join NATO. Both Georgia and Ukraine were refused Membership Action Plans to join the alliance earlier this year, and Georgia’s drive to integrate with NATO has been one of the key factors souring relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.Reuse content