POTI, September 12 – Russian troops prepared Friday to start a tentative pull-out from Georgia as Moscow vowed to strengthen its military after last month’s war and turned its diplomatic fire on Ukraine.
As the troops readied to move to the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin dismissed Western accusations that Russia’s military intervention into Georgia was part of an "imperial" agenda.
"We do not have and will not have any of the imperial ambitions that people accuse us of," Putin said in the southern resort of Sochi.
On the ground there were increasing signs Russian forces were withdrawing in line with pledges made Monday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after he met an EU delegation in Moscow.
Troops were making preparations to leave at three of the posts mentioned in the agreement, one near Poti and the other two near Senaki, which has a strategic airbase that was bombed by Russia during the August 8-12 conflict.
"We want to leave as soon as possible. We’re just waiting for orders to leave," a soldier told AFP at a checkpoint at the entrance to Poti, a key oil terminal and naval base that was also bombed by Russian jets.
While Russian troops are leaving most of Georgia they will remain in the rebel regions at the heart of last month’s conflict, estimated to have killed hundreds of people on both sides. Tens of thousands fled their homes.
Medvedev said Georgia’s August 7 assault on South Ossetia meant Russia would have to think about re-arming its military.
"We should concentrate on questions of military re-equipment," said Medvedev. Without any doubt this decision is influenced by the crisis in the Caucasus, Georgia’s aggression and its continued militarization."
International tensions flared Thursday with Russia accusing Ukraine’s pro-Western government of taking an "unfriendly" stance over the war and of infringing the rights of Russian-speaking residents.
Ukraine is a strong ally of Georgia.
"Ukrainian authorities have recently been pursuing policies that cannot be seen as anything other than unfriendly towards Russia," a strongly-worded foreign ministry statement said.
Western officials fear Ukraine’s large ethnic Russian population could leave it exposed to intervention from Moscow.
Putin sought to reassure the West this would not be the case.
"We do not have any desire or basis for infringing the sovereignty of former Soviet republics," he said.
Moscow said it was defending Russian nationals when it sent in troops to halt Georgia’s offensive into South Ossetia on August 8. Georgia says Russia has effectively annexed the territory and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia.
Georgia has also accused Russia of breaching the August 12 ceasefire that ended the conflict. It says a Georgian police officer was killed Wednesday by gunfire from a Russian checkpoint. Russia denies this.
Washington argues Russia’s decision to base 7,600 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia on a long-term basis violates the ceasefire.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in telephone talks Thursday with US counterpart Condoleezza Rice defended Russia’s decision to keep its troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Lavrov also reiterated that EU observers will be stationed exclusively in the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in order to prevent a new aggression from Tbilisi. The European Union would act as guarantor that no force will be used against Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, he was quoted saying.
Medvedev has agreed to pull out all troops from buffer zones surrounding the regions within 10 days of the deployment of EU ceasefire observers on October 1. The European Union wants the monitors to be allowed into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but Russia has ruled this out.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Thursday the United Nations was weighing sending a fact-finding mission to Georgia and was willing to facilitate international talks on South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
He also dismissed suggestions that the harsh rhetoric between Washington and Moscow signalled a return to the Cold War despite soaring tensions between the two countries.
On the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, Medvedev urged Washington to join it in combating terrorism.
"This would be much more useful for the United States than developing relations with rotten regimes that embark on military adventures," he said, alluding to US support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Russian human rights group Memorial and New York-based Human Rights Watch warned of a precarious security situation inside South Ossetia and in the buffer zones, with continued looting and burning of Georgian villages.