/ 18 August 2008

Russia warned: Withdraw from Georgia, or else

European leaders warned Russia on Sunday to withdraw its forces rapidly from Georgia or face unspecified consequences, as Moscow stalled on its pledges to honour a ceasefire and pull back the thousands of troops from the Caucasus republic.

With the United States and European governments due to meet on Tuesday to consider their options for the first time since the crisis erupted 10 days ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France threatened the Kremlin with an ultimatum for the first time, warning that more delays in a pull-out ”would have serious consequences on relations between Russia and the European Union”.

The French warning echoed similar statements from the Americans in recent days, none of which appears to have rattled the Russians, whose forces remain in firm control of large tracts of Georgia well beyond the two separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

”People are going to begin to wonder if Russia can be trusted,” said Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, on Sunday of Moscow’s failure to keep its promises.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, added to the pressure on Moscow by insisting on an ”urgent” retreat. She also backed Georgian aspirations to join Nato. Downing Street said it would send the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, later this week.

In Moscow, President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia’s troops would start withdrawing on Monday. But there is a yawning gap between what Moscow and the West understand by withdrawal.

On Sunday, Russian forces appeared to be entrenching their positions on the ground barely 48km from Tbilisi.

Nato foreign ministers are to hold an emergency meeting in Brussels on Tuesday on their response. The Americans could call for a suspension of the Nato-Russia council, a talking shop that goes back more than a decade and symbolises the post-Cold War rapprochement that has been shaken by the invasion of Georgia.

The conflict has reopened old rifts among the Western allies that recall the ”old Europe-new Europe” divisions over the Iraq war in 2003.

France and Germany are keen to maintain smooth relations with Moscow and fear that the EU’s mediation role will be jeopardised if they take sides.

The East Europeans in Nato and the EU are strongly on the side of Georgia, looking not to Brussels, Paris or Berlin, but to Washington for leadership. At the weekend, President Lech Kaczynski of Poland slammed France and Germany for being too soft on Moscow, and complained that they were trying to monopolise the EU position.

France was unapologetic. ”We have to invent a new language with regard to Russia. That is what the European Union is trying to do,” said Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister.

Troop positions
Sarkozy, the current EU president who negotiated a six-point ceasefire agreement with the Russians and Georgians last week, called for the ”withdrawal, without delay, of all the Russian military forces that entered Georgia since August 7”, when the fighting started.

The Russians, with an estimated 10 000 troops and 150 tanks in Georgia, show no intention of withdrawing the entire invasion force, and plan to leave troops in Georgia proper, beyond the two pro-Russian breakaway provinces.

On Sunday, Russian troops set up a series of checkpoints between Tbilisi and Gori. The first checkpoint near the town of Igoeti is less than 48km from the Georgian capital. Georgian drivers turned back by the Russians said they were told they needed permission from Russia’s ambassador in Georgia to drive down the road — which connects the east and west of the country.

The Russian military continues to occupy about two-thirds of the country, including several towns they were supposed to leave under the terms of the ceasefire deal agreed on Saturday by Medvedev.

The Kremlin said from Monday Russia would ”begin the withdrawal of the military contingent moved to reinforce Russian peacekeepers after the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia”. But it said the force would not retreat to Russia, only to South Ossetia, and that forces would stay in the ”security zone.”

The Russians intend to establish buffer zones in previously Georgian-controlled territory beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia. One of the most contentious points of the Sarkozy’s ceasefire plan allows Moscow ”to take additional security measures” beyond the two enclaves until ”an international mechanism” is established.

The ”international mechanism”, entailing perhaps United Nations-mandated international peacekeepers, will take weeks to establish at a minimum. The EU is endeavouring to be the main middleman, but apart from perhaps sending a few dozen unarmed ceasefire monitors in the days ahead, it is unlikely to grapple with the bigger issues of peacekeepers until EU foreign ministers meet in Avignon in France next month.

Georgia’s President, Mikheil Saakashvili, said he would not be happy until every Russian soldier had left his country’s territory. ”Georgia will never give up a square kilometre of its territory,” he said. — guardian.co.uk