by: Megan K. Stack and Peter Spiegel / The Los Angeles Times / Tuesday 12 August 2008
The close ally of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the military operation against Georgia, sparked by fighting over the disputed breakaway republic of South Ossetia, had accomplished its goals. Tbilisi, Georgia – The Russian president today ordered a halt to his country’s ongoing military action against this Western-backed Caucasus region nation even as it continued to bomb sites in central Georgia and apparently continue its advance.
Dmitri Medvedev, a close ally of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, said the military operation against Georgia sparked by fighting over the disputed breakaway republic of South Ossetia had accomplished its goals.
“The security of our peacekeepers and civilians has been restored,” Medvedev said in a statement broadcast on television. “The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized.”
But Medvedev also called on his armed forces to remain vigilant against any perceived Georgian provocations. In and around the key central Georgian city of Gori, Russian bombers struck hills and villages and fleeing residents reported that Russian soldiers had continued to advance deep into western Georgia, taking up positions in the area, even after the televised announcement.
Medvedev’s declaration came as French president Nicholas Sarkozy arrived in Moscow in an effort to mediate an end to the conflict, which pits the staunchly pro-Western former Soviet republic of Georgia against an increasingly rich and powerful Russia opposed to Washington’s growing influence in what has traditionally been its strategic backyard.
Securing a lasting peace may prove difficult. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters today that Moscow rejects the U.S.-educated Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as a partner in peace discussions. Moscow accuses Saakashvili of ordering his troops to try to retake South Ossetia by force in a move the Kremlin says cost the lives of thousands of Russian passport holders as well as some peacekeepers stationed in the province.
“I don’t think Moscow will be in the mood not only to hold talks, but even to speak to Saakashvili,” Lavrov said at a news conference after talks with his Finnish counterpart Alexander Stubb, according to the Russian Interfax news agency. “He has committed crimes against our citizens. Our position is that Mr. Saakashvili can no longer be our partner. He’d better quit.”
Russia’s latest moves in the two countries’ 5-day-old war has prompted worries about the Kremlin’s ultimate goals in the conflict. A day earlier n Washington, President Bush demanded that Russia “reverse the course it appears to be on,” but did not say what the United States might do otherwise.
Saakashvili, in an interview Monday with CNN, vowed to fight on alone “until the end” if necessary, but added, “My people feel let down by world democracies.”
The conflict threatens to drive a deeper wedge in a growing divide between Russia and the West. Although Georgia launched the initial attack on South Ossetia and Russia says it is acting to protect the local population, the United States and Western European countries regard its response as wildly disproportionate.
The fighting lurched to a new level Monday when Russian troops stormed out of Abkhazia, a second secessionist region located in northwestern Georgia, to seize control of an army base near the town of Senaki inside Georgia proper. To the east, Georgia’s military struggled to regain ground lost to Russia in South Ossetia.
Georgian reservists in flip-flops, along with drawn, dirty soldiers, mingled on the outskirts of South Ossetia, taking cover under trees and overpasses while Russian warplanes hammered the roads.
Late in the day, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its troops had pulled back from the army base near Senaki after having “eliminated the threat” that Georgian troops posed to its soldiers in South Ossetia, the Interfax news agency reported. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was quoted as saying that Russia had completed the “bigger part of the operation to coerce the Georgian side to peace in South Ossetia.”
Earlier, Saakashvili said that Russian troops had in effect sliced his country in half by seizing control of the main east-west highway at the central Georgian city of Gori. Russia denied the claim, and the conflicting accounts could not be immediately resolved.
Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have essentially governed themselves since shortly after Georgia became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia has long deployed peacekeeping troops in both regions.
The long-simmering conflict erupted in earnest last week when Georgia launched a surprise operation to seize control of South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers and hundreds of civilians. Russia has bombed targets inside Georgia and imposed a sea blockade, moving its Black Sea fleet along the coast to prevent supplies and goods from entering the country.
The emergence of a second front near Abkhazia is another sign that Russia might be intending to continue punishing the smaller, poorer country, which lies between Russia and Turkey and has been dominated by Russia for most of its modern history. Georgia has strategic significance, in part because of its location on the route of a pipeline that carries oil from the Caspian Sea to the West.
Bush, in a televised statement from the White House Rose Garden soon after he returned home Monday from the Olympic Games in Beijing, said he was “deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori and are threatening … Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. There’s evidence that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city.”
“If these reports are accurate,” he added, “these Russian actions would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia.”
Bush misspoke at one point, saying an effort appeared underway “to depose Russia’s duly elected government.” He meant Georgia’s government, repeating an assertion made earlier by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, denied that suggestion Monday as the U.N. Security Council met for its fifth day of emergency talks, which were closed to the public.
In a press briefing after the meeting, Khalilzad said that although Churkin responded to his repeated question, he did not go far enough.
“We hope Russia will join the broad consensus that is emerging, that this has gone on for too long,” Khalilzad said. He warned that the conflict would have “implications for the region, implications for the future relations of Russia with the United States, and the other international communities.”
Churkin told reporters that Russia was not likely to accept the current draft of a U.N. resolution.
“For us, the situation is not as simple as our American colleagues or our Georgian colleagues would like us or others to see,” Churkin said. “Our forces are continuing to take steps which would make sure that Georgian forces do not have the ability to invade South Ossetia again.”
Getting accurate information about the situation in Georgia was difficult at best. By Tuesday afternoon, it was not clear who was in control in Gori, a town of 50,000, though Georgian troops were nowhere to be seen.
Although Russia faces international condemnation, there is little evidence that Georgia will receive more than token military assistance from the West.
The United States flew Georgian troops deployed in Iraq back home on U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes. Beyond that, and keeping nearly 100 American military trainers in Tbilisi, the Bush administration has ruled out any military aid to Saakashvili.
Instead, senior administration officials said, the White House is pinning its near-term hopes on a cease-fire plan being presented by the French.
Saakashvili signed the agreement during French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner’s stop in Tbilisi on Monday, and a senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations said that France, in its capacity as current head of the European Union, would present the plan to the Kremlin in Moscow today.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing the sensitive negotiations, said under the plan, both sides would agree to a cease-fire and nonaggression pact, followed by a return to positions before hostilities erupted last week.
But prospects for Russian agreement appeared slim, and U.S. officials received reports of panic in Tbilisi that Russian troops could attack the capital within hours. The U.S. sent envoys to both Tbilisi and Brussels, where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was to hold emergency talks today.
U.S. officials said they had repeatedly warned Saakashvili not to be provoked into attacking South Ossetia. But they also said Russia had massively overreacted, which they regarded as an indication that the Kremlin had been searching for a pretext to invade.
Though Russia is far from occupying all of Georgia, the senior U.S. official compared the attacks to the Soviet invasions of Afghanistan in 1979 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“Their accounting is so distorted it recalls the phrase ‘the big lie,’ ” the official said of Moscow’s rationale for its military action.
“Words like ‘invasion’ should not be used lightly, but this is an invasion.”
The conflict has poured fresh animosity into already-strained relations between Moscow and Washington. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sharply criticized the United States on Monday for supporting Georgia.
“The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing,” Putin said on state television, “the attempt to turn white into black, black into white and to adeptly portray victims of aggression as aggressors and place the responsibility for the consequences of the aggression on the victims.”
The United States has displayed a “Cold War mentality,” Putin charged, supporting “Georgian rulers who used tanks to run over children and the elderly, who threw civilians into cellars and burned them.”
Stack reported from Tbikisi and Spiegel from Washington. Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Tbilisi, Erika Hayasaki at the United Nations and Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles contributed to this report.