Russia warns against rearming Georgia

United States vice-president Dick Cheney is due in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, on Thursday to underline America’s ”deep and abiding interests” in the Caucasus, in the face of Russian warnings that any Western moves to rearm the country could bring further instability, sharpening the stand-off in the region between Moscow and Washington.

As Cheney flew from Azerbaijan to Georgia in a regional tour intended to underline US resolve, the Bush administration unveiled a $1-billion aid package to rebuild the country’s civilian infrastructure. Cheney was also expected to discuss Georgia’s long shopping list of military hardware to help rebuild its army, which was severely mauled in last month’s brief conflict with Russia.

Georgian officials have said they want to equip their army’s existing four brigades with state-of-the-art weaponry, and possibly add four more brigades.

Any such move would worsen tensions with Russia, which has used its occupation of large swaths of Georgia to raze as many army bases, and destroy or confiscate as much equipment, as possible.

”All these calls on Tbilisi [by the US] about the need to restore destroyed military capability do not in any way promote the stabilisation of the situation in the region,” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Andrei Nesterenko, said.

Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has accused Washington of having advance knowledge of, and participating in, Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia last month. US military advisers had ”probably” been involved in fighting Russian troops, Putin said.

During his visit to Azerbaijan yon Wednesday, Cheney told reporters that the region was ”in the shadow of the recent Russian invasion of Georgia”.

”President Bush has sent me here with a clear and simple message for the people of Azerbaijan and this entire region: the US has deep and abiding interests in your well-being and security,” Cheney said.

The dispatch of the vice-president to the area is in itself a message. Cheney leads the hawkish wing of the Bush administration, and has championed taking a tough line with Russia.

In his meeting with Georgia’s leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, on Thursday, Cheney is expected to add his voice to calls for Russia to withdraw its troops from deep buffer zones it has carved in Georgian territory, outside the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions.

Moscow’s ambassador to London, Yuri Fedotov, said on Wednesday that Russia would withdraw its troops from those zones only when they could be replaced by international peacekeepers and once the Georgian government had signed non-aggression pacts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Fedotov said he ”deplored” the severe criticism of Russia voiced recently by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the foreign secretary, David Miliband. He claimed to have repeatedly warned the Foreign Office about the worsening crisis in Georgia in the weeks leading up to August 7, when the conflict ignited. He said he had been assured that Saakashvili was ”under control”.

The Foreign Office rejected Fedotov’s account.

The Russian ambassador was speaking to a group of journalists about the prospects for a deal at a summit next Monday, when the French and current EU President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to fly to Moscow with the head of the EU commission, José Manuel Barroso, and the European foreign policy head, Javier Solana, to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

”I’m not in a position to anticipate the outcome of Monday’s discussion, but if the EU proposes a very clear plan on how to prevent a potential confrontation and further shelling in the territory of South Ossetia … then it’s not difficult to deploy 200 or 400 people in the zones and to allow Russia to withdraw its personnel,” Fedotov said. —

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