Faced with a growing international outcry against Russia's invasion of Georgia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has pledged to withdraw Russian troops. The announcement comes amid ongoing reports of Russian troop movements and destruction of Georgian infrastructure.
A Kremlin statement described the withdrawal only in general terms. It would appear that the troops are not returning to Russia. Medvedev instead announced that the "Russian contingent" in Georgia proper would begin on August 18 to pull back to the "security zone" established by the Joint Control Commission -- an entity comprising Russia, South Ossetia - that has been the primary forum for the Ossetian peace process since 1999. Troops would also be stationed in South Ossetia.
International pressure has been steadily building for Moscow to comply with the terms of a recently signed six-point cease-fire proposal and immediately pull its troops out of Georgia. The push for peace has brought a rotating line-up of senior US and European officials and heads of state to Tbilisi.
Speaking in Tbilisi on August 17, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who followed on the heels of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stressed that "the whole world expects" Russia to act on its commitment to bring its troops home. "I expect [a] very prompt withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia," Merkel said. "This must happen in the nearest days."
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that Russian commanders in Georgia had told him that they have only two options remaining: "to move toward Tbilisi, or to pull back." Should the former come to pass, Saakashvili vowed to put up a desperate fight to protect the capital.
In an earlier interview, State Minister for Territorial Integration Temur Iakobashvili deemed any such Russian move on Tbilisi "mad and irresponsible."
"They understand that moving to Tbilisi will be suicidal for the Russian state," Iakobashvili said, in reference to Russian forces. "Militarily, they're very vulnerable, and they know it. They're spread around the whole Georgia. They have no base."
The scheduled withdrawal is just one of an ever-mushrooming set of problems related to the conflict. To provide free access for humanitarian aid and the return of displaced persons to South Ossetia, Chancellor Merkel and President Saakashvili have also called for the immediate creation of a 15-16-kilometer security zone. Saakashvili said that such a zone had been part of the original French-brokered truce proposal. Neither leader, however, specified the zone's intended location.
Both leaders, though, dispelled any notion that such a zone could double as fresh territory for Russian occupation. Such zones "shouldn't become [an] excuse for Russians to justify" their stay outside disputed territories and blocking the return of IDPs, Merkel stated. The conflict has already forced tens of thousands of individuals from both South Ossetia and the Upper Kodori Gorge, a strip of Georgian-controlled territory in separatist Abkhazia, to seek shelter in schools and government buildings in Tbilisi, Gori and other Georgian towns.
Restoring freedom of movement within the country is widely viewed as the key to alleviating that crisis and allowing aid convoys through. Georgia, Saakashvili added, will not tolerate a Russian military presence in "urban centers" or manning checkpoints on Georgian roads.
Such checkpoints and the ongoing destruction of civilian and military infrastructure persist as a reminder that Russian forces can now come or go at will from Georgian territory.
The August 16 explosion of a railway bridge at Kaspi, just outside of Gori, inside the region of Shida Kartli, has only underscored the fragility of Georgia's sovereignty, officials say. Following the explosion, Azerbaijan announced that it was halting all oil exports to western Georgia by railway. Ongoing fighting had already prompted a temporary halt to exports via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa pipelines.
Russia has denied that it destroyed the bridge. "Why should we blow up bridges?" Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nogovitsin was quoted as saying by Russian news wires. "We're the ones who will have to restore them."
Locals in Igoeti, a village at the turnoff to Kaspi, about nine kilometers away, confirm that Russian troops came into the vicinity around the time of the blast. "We ran away, we were so scared," said one elderly woman, a highway vendor. "But then, they left."
Meanwhile, locals wonder what site will be Russian forces' next destination. The government announced earlier on August 17 that "hundreds of Ossetian troops" had moved into Akhalgori, a former Georgian-controlled section of South Ossetia. The information could not be independently verified, although drivers had earlier reported seeing Russian tanks moving into the area.
Some officials describe the pattern of movement as inexplicable, suggesting that Russian forces wish merely to intimidate. Others fear that their soldiers could be settling down for the long term, the agreement with President Saakashvili notwithstanding.
A drive along the east-west highway running from Tbilisi to the Black Sea coast shows the reason for concern on both counts.
At an August 16 press conference, French Ambassador to Georgia Eric Fournier reported seeing a column of roughly 100 Russian tanks traveling eastward down the highway, en route to Tbilisi, and then, apparently, vanishing in the adjoining fields.
Earlier on August 16, a EurasiaNet reporter traveling the same route toward Gori passed a column of six Russian tanks with helmeted troops headed east. To the north, in a stretch of fields bordering South Ossetia, a Russian soldier used a bulldozer from a local contractor's lot to prepare space for a waiting tank. Scattered tanks, one flying a Russian flag, could be seen at various positions in fields along the road. Some bore tree branches as rudimentary camouflage.
Russian troops along the highway now refuse access to Gori to anyone not traveling with a government, diplomatic or humanitarian aid convoy, National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia, accompanied by a separate van of bodyguards, is the only Georgian official who regularly drives the 90 minutes from Tbilisi to Gori.
But Russian troops stationed on the Tbilisi-Gori highway maintain that they have no interest in taking Tbilisi or in prolonging their stay indefinitely. Their mission, they say, is to guarantee security.
"We have to bring order. That's why we're here," said a 24-year-old Russian sergeant sitting on top of a armored vehicle located a few kilometers outside of Gori, at Sveneti. "When we came in, the population asked us to stay, to defend them against looters. They said the Georgian police had run away."
Some local villagers, he added, claimed that they had been robbed twice - once by retreating Georgian forces; then, again, by marauding Ossetian militia.
But Georgian State Minister for Territorial Reintegration Iakobashvili rejected the notion that Russian forces are needed to double as a local police force. "Bulls**t," Iakobashvili said, speaking in English. "The Georgian police are ready to assume its responsibility at any minute."
Over the past few days, local Georgian police sources have repeatedly reported to EurasiaNet that they are returning to Gori, but, as yet, there is no clear sign that they have been able to return en masse.
Meanwhile, for all the Russian assurances of providing security, the highway from Tbilisi to Gori, ordinarily the country's busiest, is now largely deserted. A recent slew of carjackings and robberies, allegedly by armed Ossetians, has made many wary of driving on the road.
Russian forces maintain that they have arrested those responsible for a recent string of carjackings and highway robberies, and cast blame on the Ossetians. "We're not looters. We don't need anybody else's stuff. We pay for what we take," said the Sveneti sergeant.
Georgians in towns occupied by Russian forces, however, describe a varied looting list, ranging from toilets from the Senaki military base to furniture from government offices.
Russian troop movements appear similarly varied, according to Georgian sources, moving both to and from Poti, Senaki, Zugdidi, and, most recently, allegedly taking up fresh positions to the east and west of Kutaisi, Georgia's second largest city.
The strain of these strategic feints appears to be wearing on Russian troops as well. At checkpoints along the road to Gori, soldiers expressed scant enthusiasm for their Georgia mission.
"It's not happy here," said one soldier, narrowly surveying from atop his tank a grey range of mountains facing South Ossetia. "That's for sure."
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi. Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.