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DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Gen. Cartwright from the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright
August 14, 2008
         SEC. GATES: Yesterday the president directed the Department of Defense to begin a major humanitarian mission to bring relief to the people of Georgia after the violence of this past week. One C-17 loaded with supplies from Germany landed in Tbilisi on Wednesday, and another arrived early this morning. Humanitarian missions are expected to continue in the days ahead by both land and sea -- I'm sorry -- by air and sea. 
 
         U.S. European Command is leading the military component of a wider humanitarian relief and assistance effort taking place under the direction of the State Department. EUCOM deployed a survey team of experts to Georgia yesterday to assess the needs on the ground and provide recommendations. The most urgent priority for the U.S. military at this time is to save lives and alleviate suffering. During these humanitarian relief operations, the United States expects Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads and airspace, remain open. As the president said, we also expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia, and we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country.
 
         At the request of the Georgian government, the United States airlifted approximately 1,800 Georgian troops from Iraq back to their homeland, per a long-standing agreement with Georgia. 
 
         Before taking questions, I'd like also to say a few words about the implications of this week's events for our security relationship with Russia. Starting last fall, Secretary Rice and I began what we hoped would be an ongoing and long-term strategic dialogue with the Russian Federation. The expectation was that our two nations, despite our differences, shared areas of common interest where we could work together as real partners.
 
         Russia's behavior over the past week has called into question the entire premise of that dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward, both bilaterally and with NATO. If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.
 
         As you may know, we have cancelled our participation in a multinational naval exercise with Russia that was due to begin tomorrow. We've also cancelled a U.S.-Canadian-Russian exercise, Vigilant Eagle, that was to have begun on August 20th. In the days and weeks ahead, the Department of Defense will reexamine the entire gamut of our military-to-military activities with Russia and will make changes as necessary and appropriate, depending on Russian actions in the days ahead.
 
         Thank you.
 
         Lita?
 
         Q     Mr. Secretary, Chairman, can you give us an assessment of what you think Russian troops are doing on the ground now?  
 
        There are strong indications that they are not adhering to the cease- fire right now; that they are destroying Georgian installations as they move back toward the border.  
 
         And secondarily, can you say what you think the U.S. military is prepared to do? How long is the U.S. military prepared to stay in Georgia? How many troops are you willing to send in? Are you -- and would you give the Georgians any U.S. military aid in the form of either military equipment to help them replace what they have lost?
 
         SEC. GATES: Let me answer the last part of your question and then turn to General Cartwright.  
 
         The mission the president has given us at this point is humanitarian relief to assist the people of Georgia. And that is our focus at this point. The United States government then will turn to questions not -- of both economic reconstruction and also what to do to help the Georgian security forces, looking to the -- to the longer- term future. So this is a sequenced kind of thing.  
 
         Right now, the only people we will have on the ground are those that are required to deliver the humanitarian mission and a handful of trainers who have been in Georgia for some period of time. And General Cartwright can speak to that as well.
 
         GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I think, on the military side -- and it's difficult at the tactical level to know each and every engagement in each town. But generally, the forces are starting to move out of the city, particularly Gori, starting to consolidate their positions and get themselves into a position where they can start to back away towards the -- as you said, towards the border. We see that going on particularly in the areas around the sea ports and around Tbilisi and up north of Tbilisi and west towards Gori.
 
         The air activities in and around that region have slowed dramatically. Over the last 24 hours, really, there has been no air activity. And so we see them generally complying and moving back into a position where they can start to make their exit in an orderly fashion.
 
         From the standpoint of the assessments and what we might do, the intent of the team that European Command put in is to look at the security situation in the context of humanitarian assistance -- so what roads are open; where is help needed; what kind of help is needed    in those areas; is it medical; is it communications -- rebuilding infrastructure, things like that -- so that we can do the right things.  
 
         There is an initial package that went in on the two C-17s. That's really the standard package we do for humanitarian assistance, focused first on shelter, then on clothing and medical supplies, rudimentary things that we've found that almost whatever the humanitarian assistance issue is, they're going to need those things.
 
         What we don't want to do is build some sort of mountain of supplies there with no distribution system. So the team has to also go in and look what kind of distribution -- are the roads passable? Are regular wheeled vehicles okay? Do we need something more robust? Can we start to move trucks? Do they have indigenous trucks and are they in good shape? So those are the types of things that we would expect to find out in the next 48 hours.
 
             State and other agencies will put assessment teams in behind this team, give us an understanding of the country and where the need is so that we can properly apply it. Our early comments were, make sure that the airports are available to us, the roads are available to us and the seaports available to us. And so that's the assessment that's going on during this 48 hours.
 
         Q     Mr. Secretary, can you just state clearly whether there's any prospect or possibility of U.S. military force being used in this conflict?  
 
         And then a question for General Cartwright. Can you talk about the cyber aspect to this? Have you or people within the U.S. military looked into the cyber aspect to this conflict? What conclusions have you drawn about who was responsible, whether the Georgian claims are correct? And what this signals, perhaps, for the future of warfare?
 
         SEC. GATES: I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation. Is that clear enough? (Laughter.)
 
         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  The cyber issue; attribution is very difficult in cyber anyway, and at this stage of the game it would be premature to try to go through the forensics that we have and make a determination, although we are looking at it. Most of what we have seen and been able to monitor and verify is of a defacing of websites, not really as robust as denial of service. And so what we're trying to understand is, working our way back, what are the implications, can we really tie this to the military activities or was this more of a separate group that had a more political agenda. Those are unknowns at this point.  
 
         We did take some lessons from Estonia and the work that occurred there in rehosting sites that were critical to their government. We rehosted them in different countries, and they've been available.  
 
         And indications right now are there's a low-level activity on the defacing type of activities, but general services are available. The networks seem to be coming back up. The Internet service providers seem to be working. So we're going to back to -- I won't say business as usual, but they're starting to take -- they, being the Georgians, are starting to be able to take over the services again, bring them and rehost them in their country. And we'll go back and look at this. SEC. GATES: Tom?
 
         Q     Thank you, Mr. Secretary. As someone who's watched the Soviet Union and now Russia very closely for a great number of years, what is your assessment of their military prowess today? How have they performed over this recent offensive? And what are the implications, not only for the region but for the American military?
 
         SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, they clearly had a great advantage in having superior airpower and a lot of force that they were able to bring to bear. My own view is that, you know, this -- it's a strange thing, but since 2004, every August there has been an exchange of fire between South Ossetia -- South Ossetians and the Georgians.
 
        And this year, it escalated very quickly.  
 
         And it seemed to me that the Russians were prepared to take advantage of an opportunity and did so very aggressively but went far beyond just reasserting the autonomy of Abkhazia and -- or their view of the autonomy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but to punish Georgia and for more than just their part in the annual exchange of fire but rather, I think, to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West economically and politically and in security arrangements.  
 
         I think that the Russians' further message was to all of the parts of the former Soviet Union, as a signal about trying to integrate with the West and move outside of the long-time Russian sphere of influence. So I think that they had an opportunity to make some very broad points and, I think, they seized that opportunity.  
 
         I think we'll have to -- how they actually performed, I think, we'll take analysis at a little greater remove. But I would say in the context of what they did, as opposed to how they did it, they performed very badly.  
 
         Q     Mr. Secretary, there are some critics who say that the Bush administration has emboldened the Georgian president, sending mixed messages -- we will stand and fight with our friends -- pushing hard for NATO membership. What's your response to that?  
 
         SEC. GATES: Well, I don't believe that's true.  
 
         The fact is, the United States government has been cautioning both the Russians and the Georgians ever since the Russians began to take some more aggressive steps last spring, sending 500 railway troops to Abkhazia, to improve the supply lines there, and some of the other measures that they've taken. And so I think that, you know, just on our part, in the very recent future -- very recent past, last Friday, I spoke to the Georgian minister of defense and urged restraint on them.  
 
         I also talked to the Russian minister of defense, Minister Serdyukov; urged restraint on the Russians.  
 
        And of course -- and Chairman Mullen, Admiral Mullen talked to his Russian counterpart actually several times from Friday through Sunday. And I will tell you that Minister Serdyukov told me that the Russians have no intention of going into Georgia. So I think that -- as I say, I think that the Russians saw an opportunity and they seized it.
 
         Q    On NATO membership, the issue's going to come up again in December, as you know, and there are some analysts, and particularly the Atlantic Council, saying you should redouble your efforts to push for NATO membership, maybe have a meeting before December. Does that make sense?
 
         SEC. GATES: Well, I don't know about -- I don't know about that. I mean, there are 26 nations involved in this process. But certainly the intent is to re-raise this issue again in December.
 
         Q    Mr. Secretary --
 
         Q     Sir, you said earlier that this could in fact adversely affect U.S.-Russian relations for years to come. And there's already quite a bit of public speculation out there that this could lead to another Cold War situation between the U.S. and Russia. Are the U.S. and Russia headed toward another Cold War?
 
         SEC. GATES: Well, that certainly is not our desire. And I think that -- I think, frankly, we have been pretty restrained in this, and I would say beginning with my remarks at the Wehrkunde conference a year ago February, where now Prime Minister Putin's speech was regarded by virtually everyone there as very aggressive. And we have tried not to respond in that manner.  
 
         So I think that what happens -- as I indicated in my remarks, I think what happens in the days and months to come will determine the future course of U.S.-Russian relations, but by the same token, my personal view is that there need to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state.
 
         Q    But given your experience and your expertise, what do you think the Russians' intentions are? You said that the U.S. doesn't wish to engage in a Cold War. What do you think the Russians' intentions are?
 
         SEC. GATES: My view is that the Russians and I would say principally Prime Minister Putin is interested in reasserting Russia's -- not only Russia's great power or superpower status, but in reasserting Russia's traditional spheres of influence.
 
        I think that there is an effort to try and redress what they regard as many of the concessions they feel were forced upon them in the 1990s, in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his talks with Secretary Rice and myself, he refers to the CFE Treaty [Conventional Armed Force in Europe Treaty] as the "Colonial Treaty."
 
         And so I think that what we have seen in the way that they have treated Western businesses and, most recently, in this is to reassert Russia's international status and, unfortunately, to do so in a negative way.
 
         Q     Mr. Secretary, what are the consequences, in terms of what would turn this around? You say they've seized this opportunity to punish Georgia, send a message to other countries in the region, to allies who chose to stand with the West, with the United States? How do you win them back? What do you do now?
 
        SEC. GATES: Win back the allies who have stood with us or win back the --
 
         Q     Win back their support -- their willingness to stand with the U.S. and the West.
 
         SEC. GATES: My guess is that most of those countries, if not all of them, probably have a higher incentive to stand with us now than they did before, now that they have seen what the Russians have done in Georgia.
 
         Q     And yet despite your strongest protests, Russians are still occupying one of the ports. They're destroying some of the airports as they leave, according to reports we've gotten. They're controlling major roadways.
 
         SEC. GATES: Well, what they're -- what they control, as General Cartwright was saying -- he's welcome to chime in here, but we have found that a lot of the reports -- the initial reports that we have received on things going on in Georgia have not been accurate. And so there's been more than a little confusion about exactly what the situation is on the ground.  
 
         We know that -- our latest information, for example, is that the commercial port at Poti is intact and usable. And we think that the Russians never actually imposed a blockade. We think that other commercial ships -- or that commercial ships didn't come into the port just because the Russian ships were there, not because they were being prevented from coming in.
 
         So I think that -- you know, my guess is that everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we -- as we look ahead. And I think Russia's got some serious work to do to try and work its way back into the family of nations that are trying to work together and build democracy and build -- and build their economies, working together.
 
             Q     You said earlier that you didn't see any prospect for the use of military force. Normally a Defense secretary in a U.S. administration never takes an option off the table.  
 
         Why are you taking, at this point, any military option so publicly off the table? What signal does that send to the other -- to Russia?  
 
         And just a couple of follow-ups, General Cartwright -- 
 
         SEC. GATES: Let me answer that one and then -- because if you get too far down the road, I'll forget your question.  
 
         First of all, I made that comment in the context of the current situation. As General Cartwright indicated, the information that we have available to us is that, first of all, the air corridors are open for us to take the humanitarian supplies in.  
 
         We've seen no indication that they're blocking roads. That's what the survey team is out there to confirm. They appear to be withdrawing their forces back toward Abkhazia and to the zone of conflict toward South Ossetia. And so it's in that framework that I made that comment.  
 
         But I would also say something more broadly. The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia. I see no reason to change that approach today.  
 
         Q     My question sir is, then, you say they're withdrawing. But you do continue, if I understand you correctly, to see Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  
 
         Is it acceptable to you gentlemen to see Russian forces continue to stay there? And the bottom line: At this point, do you feel you can trust Russia? Do you feel you can trust Vladimir Putin?  
 
         (Laughter.)  
 
         SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think, we need to take this in sequences. Getting the Russians back inside the zone of conflict and then back inside Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it seems to me, is the first objective.  
 
         Then the question comes before more the State Department and Secretary Rice and her counterparts in Europe and Russia, to see what   kind of longer-term peacekeeping arrangements can be developed for both of those places, for Abkhazia and for South Ossetia.  
 
         The Russians have had what they call peacekeepers in both places, wearing blue helmets. Whether they stay there, how long they stay there and so on is, as best I can tell, a subject that will be negotiated.  
 
         I think it would be unlikely for the United States to participate in the peacekeeping operations with our own troops. But I believe that we probably would be prepared to be -- to provide support and be enablers.  
 
        In other words, if we can provide air transportation to get people to Georgia and provide other kinds of support like that, I suspect, if the president approved it, we would be prepared to do that.  
 
         But General -- 
 
         GEN. CARTWRIGHT: The only other qualifier I'd put on would be that as they move back into those original positions, they also see the drawdown in force to the levels that we had pre-conflict, so to speak.  
 
         Q     And do you trust Vladimir Putin anymore?
 
         SEC. GATES: "Anymore" is an interesting add. (Laughter.) I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities.
 
         Q     Could I -- the size and scope of the operation going forward -- can you give a feel for some of the naval vessels, assets that may be in involved in such a very visible manifestation of U.S. policy?
 
         GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Right now, again, we're waiting for the assessment team. But we have certainly postured the two hospital ships, Comfort and Mercy, to be potential -- to go in there and be -- for a couple reasons: one, if they need medical-type support, that's obviously good, but they also produce large quantities of fresh water, things like that. And so they would be two potential assets.  
 
         But we are posturing several capabilities -- field hospitals also, which would be delivered by air, which would be further out into the areas where -- say, inland, where you might need some medical care and humanitarian assistance.  
 
         Beyond that, from the shipping standpoint, we're looking at what we have in our maritime pre-positioning, because those also carry things like humanitarian assistance, water and needs like that, and engineering support. All of those are just prepared; they won't move until we get something from the assessment team.
 
         Q     What about airdropping pallets, like they did in the early -- mid-90s, into the areas in Serbia or Bosnia? Is there a problem –
 
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: It's certainly a capability that we have.  It is less likely that we would use that in this situation, because there are several airports. But if the assessment team finds that there's no mobility, then that's what we generally end up with.  
 
         But this is an area that's at least reasonably built up in its transportation system, with airports and roads. So it is less likely we do that. And that's harder, because there's damage to the equipment when it goes in -- the food supplies, whatnot. Delivering it is more precise --
 
         Q     You don't expect interference, another signal from the Russians in the next few days, to flex their muscles by small episodes of interfering with the relief effort?
 
         GEN. CARTWRIGHT: We have had very good communications on the movement of our aircraft, the 14 that brought the troops back, the additional three -- two for humanitarian assistance, a third to take the team in. We've been -- had very good cooperation and dialogue in those.
 
         STAFF: (Off mike) -- questions.
 
         Q     General, as this assessment team makes its assessments, will they be going out into the conflict zone?  
 
        And if so, what sort of force protection or rules of engagement would be in place?  
 
         And Mr. Secretary, if I may, you spoke about consequences. You said there should be some consequences. And you detailed what you thought they should be, if this goes on, if Russia doesn't live up to its commitments.  
 
         But if they continue to draw down or draw back, as you've described, what do you think is the appropriate consequence or consequences for this?  
 
         GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Pushing out the assessment team, they will start in Tbilisi with assessments based on the local government, the national government actually there, as to what they believe ground truth is. And then they will begin to move out, based on mobility.  
 
         They always reserve the right to self defense but they are not probing to find military forces. They're trying to find transportability need. What is the character of the environment, the national security environment in the area?  
 
         I don't expect them to be confrontational. That's not their job. They're just out there to find what is going on. And we have made notification. And we will continue to make notification, so that the Russians in this case will know where they are and when they're moving.  
 
         SEC. GATES: I think that the Russians are already facing consequences from the nature of what they've done in Georgia, this punitive mission that they launched. And I think the first is what I said earlier. I think that all the nations of Europe, regardless of their -- and on the periphery of Russia -- regardless of what their public statements are, are looking at Russia through a different set of lenses.  
 
         Q     But what does that mean practically?  
 
         SEC. GATES: I think it means, in terms of international institutions, in terms of cooperation with Russia, in terms of the overall relationships between many nations and Russia, that there may be consequences.  
 
         (Cross talk.)    Q     You just said that it's unlikely that U.S. troops will be peacekeepers in Georgia. Why is that?  
 
         SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, we do seem to be busy with other things. So there is a question of resources. But at the same time, I think that it's -- it probably -- my guess is that there will be more interest in having peacekeepers who come out of Europe for this situation. Just -- I'm just guessing, in terms of the politic.  
 
         Yeah.  
 
         Q     When you talk about this, the Russians taking an opportunity, are you saying that they planned this in advance?  
 
         SEC. GATES: I'm not sure.  
 
         Last question.  
 
         Q     Earlier you spoke about the -- that most initial reports in this conflict turned out to be wrong. How did the lack of good intelligence lead to the delayed reaction potentially by the administration? Or did that impact on your awareness of the situation on the ground as it actually developed?  
 
         SEC. GATES: Well, I think, partly our approach was impacted by what we were being told particularly by the Russians.  
 
        And I mentioned the conversation that I had had with Minister Serdyukov and the chairman's conversations with General Makarov, Secretary Rice's conversations with Minister Lavrov.  
 
         So I think, you know, that was initially a -- you know, the truth of the matter is you learn in most of these situations that the initial reports of what's happening are often wrong. It's not limited to Georgia.
 
         Thank you all very much.  
 
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