By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; A08
MOSCOW, Sept. 9 — Russia plans to more than double its military presence in the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and station troops there indefinitely, officials said Tuesday, a day after President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to withdraw Russian forces from undisputed Georgian territory by Oct. 11.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Russian troops would remain in the separatist regions “for a long time. Their presence there will be needed at least for the foreseeable future to prevent any relapses of aggressive actions.” Separately, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was quoted as telling Medvedev in a meeting that South Ossetia and Abkhazia had agreed to host bases with about 3,800 Russian soldiers each.
Before last month’s war with Georgia, the Russian military stationed about 1,000 troops in South Ossetia and 2,500 in Abkhazia as peacekeeping forces. After the war, Russian officials suggested they intended to keep troops in the regions, which it now recognizes as independent states.
Tuesday’s statements were the clearest and most detailed indication of the Kremlin‘s plans to date. The timing of the announcement, a day after Medvedev agreed in talks with European leaders to withdraw troops from all Georgian territory outside the disputed territories, seemed intended to emphasize Russia’s determination to support the secession of the two regions despite strong Western objections.
“I hope that, as a minimum, this will stop the Georgian military regime from committing any idiotic actions,” Medvedev told the defense minister in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency.
Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, said the Russian announcement went “completely against the spirit and the letter” of the six-point cease-fire agreement that ended hostilities.
The two regions enjoyed de facto autonomy for more than a decade before Russia’s decision to formally recognize their secession. Russia said it was compelled to act after Georgia abandoned peace talks and tried to seize South Ossetia by force on Aug. 7.
Russia has argued that South Ossetia and Abkhazia have a stronger case for independence than Kosovo, the Serbian province that the United States and much of Europe recognized as independent in February over Moscow’s objections.
Western governments have denounced Russia’s moves as an attempt to unilaterally redraw Georgia’s borders.
In Washington on Tuesday, U.S. lawmakers pressed Bush administration officials on whether the United States can realistically impose sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Georgia.
“What kind of leverage do we have that they care about?” Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) asked at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It strikes me that simply verbal condemnation and diplomatic isolation may not be enough to get the job done.”
Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, agreed: “You’re quite right that a couple of communiques . . . do not constitute a lasting lesson.” But he said Russia’s dependence on natural resource exports and its large population leave it “ill-placed to have a hostile relationship with the world.”
Senators raised the possibility of mustering international groups such as the World Trade Organization and the Group of Seven industrialized nations to impose costs on Russia, as well as intensifying pressure on Russian financial markets and foreign investment in the country.
In New York on Tuesday, Russia introduced a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would bar states from selling arms or providing military training to Georgia. The resolution appears unlikely to be adopted by the 15-nation council, on which the United States holds a veto. The measure highlighted Russia’s opposition to U.S. military support for its neighbor.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, sought to promote the diplomatic standing of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, telling reporters that their leaders need to be directly involved in future discussions about the United Nations‘ role in the region.
Correspondent Tara Bahrampour in Tbilisi, Georgia, and staff writers Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.