TBILISI, Georgia — In a delicate mission, a U.S. Defense Department team is coming to assess Georgia’s military needs after its war with Russia, a show of support that is certain to stoke Moscow’s anger.
American help in rebuilding Georgia’s armed forces, regardless of the scale, could harden lines in the standoff between Moscow and Washington over the future of this pro-Western nation that straddles a key pipeline route from the oil fields of Central Asia.
Russia has withdrawn most of the troops who drove deep into Georgia after repelling a Georgian offensive against separatist South Ossetia. But the Kremlin says it plans a long-term military presence in South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia.
The U.S. has focused publicly on economic aid for recovery and reconstruction of Georgia.
But the Pentagon announced this week that it would send a team to examine the Georgian military’s ‘‘legitimate needs.’’ It did not say the U.S. would rebuild Georgia’s forces, but said Georgia ‘‘should have the ability to defend itself and to deter renewed aggression.’’
The announcement came hours after Russia said that for the foreseeable future, it would keep nearly 8,000 soldiers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it has recognized as independent nations.
Major U.S. military aid to Georgia could raise a potentially explosive prospect: Two Russian-controlled regions facing off against an American-armed government in an area roiling with tension.
But proponents of a robust U.S. program to aid Georgia’s military argue that anything less might encourage an assertive Kremlin to use force — or the threat of force — to get its way in other parts of its traditional sphere of influence. They say a capable Georgian military facing a powerful Russian presence could make for a less volatile atmosphere.
If Russia controls Abkhazia and South Ossetia ‘‘and leaves significant forces there, a Georgian incursion into either of those areas would become militarily unthinkable,’’ Robert Hamilton, a defense analyst and regional expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote last week.
He said that would leave Georgia’s armed forces with the job of protecting the territory under its control, ‘‘a mission that they are certainly capable of fulfilling if the U.S. assists.’’
Still, Russia is highly unlikely to accept assurances of a purely defensive U.S. and Georgian intent, so any American military aid could heighten tensions.
Thousands of Georgian soldiers previously received training from the U.S. military, mostly for service in Iraq, where Georgia’s 2,000-man contingent was the third-largest in the American-led coalition. Russia cried foul when U.S. planes flew the Georgians home during the fighting.
An unstated purpose of that U.S. training was to send a signal to Russia. But Hamilton said the U.S. avoided training the Georgians in areas ‘‘seen as too provocative,’’ such as the use of artillery, armor and attack aviation.
What the U.S. might provide now is far from clear.
Bush administration officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that any arms buildup would be undertaken carefully, and the military has declined to give details about the assessment mission.
A Defense Department spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Elizabeth Hibner, said Friday that the team had not yet arrived in Georgia but would travel here soon.
Georgian officials insist they say that are in no rush to rebuild.
‘‘We don’t expect to get anything from the U.S., we haven’t got anything recently from the U.S. and we will not be getting any large-scale hardware or military material assistance from the U.S.,’’ President Mikhail Saakashvili told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.
Saakashvili claimed Georgia’s military is largely intact, but critics say that is wishful thinking.
Georgia has not publicly put numbers on military equipment losses, but they include many armored vehicles and eight Georgian navy vessels, including their tiny navy’s flagship.
Georgy Tavdgeridze, a Georgian defense analyst and adviser to an opposition political party, said he believes Russian claims that 65 Georgian tanks were seized are roughly accurate, but that the number of Georgian tanks destroyed was far smaller.
Speaking to AP in Poti recently, Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili said what Georgia needs is not restoration of lost tanks but an overhaul of its military, focusing on defensive weapons and training of officers for a defensive war.
‘‘There is practically no officer corps that can conduct combat operations,’’ he said.