Russia resolute on troop levels
Putin defies call to withdraw from territories
MOSCOW - Only Russia and the "countries" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will decide how many troops Moscow can keep on their soil, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said yesterday, signaling that the Kremlin will do as it pleases in the separatist Georgian regions regardless of Western demands.
The statement was in frank defiance of calls by Georgia, the United States, and the European Union for a withdrawal of most Russian troops from the breakaway territories, which only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized as independent nations.
Thumbing its nose at Georgia and the United States, South Ossetia rolled what Russian media said were captured American-made jeeps and Georgian tanks through the streets of its capital in an Independence Day parade.
The developments underscored the reality taking shape following last month's war.
Putin stressed that Russia will adhere to its promise to pull back from the strips of land surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia once European Union monitors are deployed. Those areas are Georgian territory, he said.
But he said any "possible" Russian pullout from South Ossetia and Abkhazia themselves was a "separate issue," suggesting Moscow's recognition of the separatist regions as independent nations has changed the rules.
"The question of the presence of our armed forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be decided bilaterally," Putin said after a meeting with Prime Minister François Fillon of France. According to the ITAR-Tass news agency, he added that such decisions will be based on "international law and agreements between Russia and these countries."
The remarks indicate Russia will continue to ignore Western calls to pull nearly all its forces out of Georgia under a cease-fire deal brokered by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to end the five-day war that erupted last month in South Ossetia.
The United States and European countries say Russia is violating its commitment to withdraw its forces to preconflict positions. Russia has announced plans to maintain nearly 8,000 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, far more than in the months before the war.
Putin said Russia has no intention of annexing any land, saying it was "solely a question of providing security in the region."
Putin suggested that by backing Kosovo's independence declaration in February, Western nations had ruined any argument against Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"It is not we who opened this Pandora's box," he said.
In the war-battered South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, residents lined streets to watch South Ossetian soldiers and military vehicles roll by, behind what state-run Russian media said were Georgian tanks, armor, and military vehicles - booty grabbed as Georgian forces retreated.
Russia's First Channel showed what it said were American-made military jeeps and an armored vehicle.
In an evocation of a World War II victory parade on Moscow's Red Square, Georgian flags were thrown to the ground in front of a podium on the central square.
Amid increasing Russian support and mounting exchanges of fire, Georgian forces launched a large-scale offensive targeting Tskhinvali on Aug. 7.
Russian forces repelled the attack and drove deep into Georgia.