Russia is giving notice that it is not about to let the situation return to the status quo before Georgia tried to reassert control over South Ossetia. Russia also interprets the cease-fire in a much broader way than does the U.S. or France among others. The U.S. and Germany continue to support Georgia joining NATO a recipe for even more conflict. These events are going to create problems for Obama and McCain probably to the benefit of McCain who is more likely to be hawkish on relations with Russia. This is from the NY Times.
August 23, 2008
After Pullout, Russia Envisions Long-Term Shift
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
MOSCOW — As the Russian Army withdrew most of its forces from Georgia, it was becoming ever more clear on Friday that Moscow had no intention of restoring what once was — either on the ground or diplomatically.
The West wants a return to early August, before an obscure territorial dispute on the fringes of the old Soviet empire erupted into an international crisis. But Russia’s forces are digging in and seizing ribbons of Georgian land that abut two breakaway enclaves allied with Moscow, effectively extending its zone of influence.
At the same time, the Kremlin is nearing formal recognition of the independence of the enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, possibly as early as next week.
These moves indicate that despite the French-brokered cease-fire framework that Russia accepted, it is striving to maintain considerable economic and military pressure on Georgia, a close ally of the United States. The ultimate goal, it seems, is the ouster of its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who is detested by the Russian leadership, and the installation of a government that it considers less hostile.
The Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, promised early this week that most Russian troops would be withdrawn by Friday, and throughout the day, soldiers were observed heading north toward the two enclaves. Russian tanks swept along Georgia’s main roadways, abandoning an important military camp and checkpoints outside the central city of Gori.
By the night, the defense minister, Anatoly E. Serdyukov, had declared the pullback completed, saying that “the Russian side has fulfilled” the cease-fire.
Even so, Russian soldiers maintained a series of armed checkpoints along Georgia’s main highway, leaving the Kremlin with the ability to cut off trade and traffic across the country and to isolate the capital, Tbilisi, from much of the nation.
It also continued to occupy areas near a military base in Senaki, the western city of Zugdidi and the vital port of Poti on the Black Sea. Russian officials say 500 soldiers they refer to as peacekeepers will remain in Georgia near South Ossetia.
In Washington on Friday, a State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, said that by establishing the buffer zones, the Russians “failed to live up to their obligations under the cease-fire agreement.” France expressed similar objections.
In spurning a complete pullback, the Kremlin is sending a message that it has no regrets about marching into its much smaller neighbor, even if the conflict has stirred the sharpest tensions between Moscow and Washington since the end of the cold war.
Having grown increasingly angry over NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, the Russians believe that they have finally and justly struck back, according to analysts and officials in Moscow.
The Russian leadership has also expressed more confidence in recent days that it is getting across its view that it attacked Georgia two weeks ago only in response to an unprovoked assault by the Georgian military on civilians in South Ossetia.
Alexei Pankin, a columnist for the Russian state news agency, said on Friday that the Kremlin had undoubtedly ordered tanks into Georgia because it wanted to somehow topple Mr. Saakashvili. While it did not immediately achieve that aim, it is now in a better position to do so than it was before the conflict.
“Their feeling now is, you made gains and you should keep them,” Mr. Pankin said. “After what happened, their successes, they are not really feeling constrained now.”
The Kremlin has signaled its intention to remove Mr. Saakashvili in part by trying to isolate him. The Russian Foreign Ministry, which has often suggested that Mr. Saakashvili is unstable, said this week that it would not negotiate directly with him “for reasons absolutely understandable to any sensible person.”
Still, dangers loom for the Kremlin, especially if it falls victim to its historical tendency to overreach. For now, the West has shied from severe steps to punish Russia, such as ousting it from the Group of 8. But should Russia be perceived in the coming weeks as actively trying to overthrow Mr. Saakashvili or retake parts of the country, it could set off new penalties that might threaten its robust economic revival.
Already, Russia’s financial markets have evinced concern about that, with the stock market falling since the conflict began and capital flowing out of the country at a fast pace.
In Tbilisi on Friday night, Mr. Saakashvili spoke live on national television, appearing grim and subdued. He warned Georgians to expect more problems, and he pledged to offer compensation to families who had lost relatives in the fighting.
Despite all Georgia’s setbacks in the last two weeks, Mr. Saakashvili vowed anew to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity — restating an ambition that had helped propel Georgia into a clash with its much more powerful neighbor to the north.
“Georgia has no extra territories to give to others,” he said.
The war started late on Aug. 7 when Mr. Saakashvili ordered his small, American-trained military to attack and seize Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, a tiny mountainous region on the southern face of the Caucasus Ridge. The region has been out of Georgia’s control, and under Russian support, since a brief war in the 1990s.
Mr. Saakashvili’s order, which he has said was necessary to prevent a Russian assault, turned into a disaster that threatened the Georgian state. Russian planes, rockets and artillery pounded Georgian positions, while armored units routed Georgian forces and swept into several principal cities.
Moreover, a wide plain of Georgian villages was largely depopulated and is now behind a new administrative border defended by Russian troops. Tbilisi was crowded on Friday with refugees, many subsisting in squalid conditions.
Even with many of the Russian troops withdrawn by Friday night, fears lingered that soldiers would try to conduct checks on the main east-west highway, creating economic stress on, or even a blockade of, Tbilisi and much of the rest of the country. Under the cease-fire accord, Russian forces are prohibited from blocking traffic, though they have done so this week.
“One of the Russian war goals was to bring down this government, and by economic pressure they hope to do that,” a senior NATO official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation with reporters. “Bringing down the government was more likely their goal than conquering Tbilisi.”
In response, NATO foreign ministers have sent civil emergency planning teams to help Georgia rebuild civilian infrastructure and restore its economy.
Georgia’s prime minister, Lado Gurgenidze, played down the risk of an extended blockade of Tbilisi. “There’s been no hoarding, no panic buying, apart from a few incidents,” Mr. Gurgenidze said.
He said the capital had stocks of gasoline and flour, though he declined to say how long they were expected to last.
At stores in Tbilisi, food prices have risen sharply since the conflict began and did not drop on Friday, even with the partial pullout. At one fruit stand, the price for peaches had risen by 40 percent, and for apples by 100 percent.
“We are afraid — most people are stocking up, it’s not just me,” said Lyuda Marishvili, an elderly woman who was shopping at a market in the capital. “The roads are closed. There will be no products.”
C. J. Chivers contributed reporting from Karaleti, Georgia, and Andrew E. Kramer from Tbilisi.