Russia says troops to remain in breakaway regions
US to send team to Georgia; EU to boost Ukraine ties
PARIS - The regional power struggle prompted by the crisis in Georgia intensified yesterday when Moscow said thousands of troops would stay in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the European Union promised deeper ties with Ukraine to counterbalance growing Russian influence.
More than one month after hostilities broke out in Georgia, the United States also acted, pledging to send a team to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to review American support for the reconstruction of Georgia's economy, infrastructure, and armed forces.
Meanwhile, the EU sought to use its favored tool - soft power - to contain a resurgent Russia after Moscow's military offensive against Georgia.
The EU said it was on track to sign a deal in 2009 to strengthen economic and political ties to Kiev, although it gave no commitment that Ukraine would ever be able to join the bloc.
Events in Georgia have amplified calls from Europeans who want to foster integration with countries like Ukraine and Moldova that could fall under the sway of Moscow. But the EU is divided on whether to bring such nations into its club.
A reminder of the dangers of ignoring those countries came in an uncompromising message from the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who said troops would stay in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for a long time to prevent any "repeat of Georgian aggression," Reuters reported. Troops inside the two breakaway regions in Georgia were not explicitly mentioned in the French-brokered deal.
"We have already agreed on the contingent in the region of 3,800 men in each republic," Defense Minister Anatoli Serdyukov said, briefing the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev.
At a meeting Monday with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Medvedev agreed to honor an EU-brokered peace plan requiring Russia to withdraw troops from positions within Georgia proper, taken up during the recent conflict, by mid-October. In a goodwill gesture, it pulled troops back from a Georgian town outside Abkhazia yesterday, one of 24 positions in the main part of Georgia that officials say is still held by Russians.
At the meeting Monday between Medvedev and Sarkozy, the issue of Russian troops inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia was discussed, according to a European official who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions.
Under a 1999 agreement, the permitted number of peacekeepers under Russian command in South Ossetia was 1,000. A separate agreement, reached in the early 1990s, gave the Russians the right to deploy up to 3,000 troops in Abkhazia. The Georgians estimate that the Russians had approximately 2,200 there before the fighting erupted Aug. 7.
In the United States the undersecretary of defense for policy, Eric Edelman, told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the Department of Defense was sending an evaluation team to Tbilisi this week.
"We will review how the United States will be able to support the reconstruction of Georgia's economy, infrastructure and armed forces," he said, according to the Associated Press.
Europe sought to use less muscular forms of diplomacy when Sarkozy held an EU summit meeting with the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, who is in the throes of a political crisis at home.
After Sarkozy's frantic diplomacy in Moscow and Tbilisi on Monday, the venue of the EU-Ukraine summit meeting was switched abruptly, marooning some European and Ukrainian officials in Evian. The two sides convened instead at the Elysee Palace in Paris, where they said they had completed the political side of negotiations on what will be called an Association Agreement.
The deal, which could be signed next year, will create a free trade zone, increase cooperation on energy and work toward a visa-free regime. "This shuts no doors and perhaps it opens some doors," Sarkozy said, alluding to Ukraine's membership ambitions.
"We are convinced that in 2009 we will be in a position to sign a highly symbolic document," said Yushchenko.
Sarkozy added that it was "a decisive date in the history of relations between the EU and Ukraine."
Because the Ukrainian government is not a candidate for EU membership, it has flexibility to choose the areas in which it wants to meet European standards, making discussions particularly complex.