NATO takes no decisive steps to force Russian withdrawal

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 19, 2008 

BRUSSELS — NATO declared Tuesday that there will be no "business as usual" with Moscow while Russian forces occupied large parts of Georgia, but it took no decisive action to enforce a demand for an immediate Russian withdrawal in line with a French-brokered cease-fire.

Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, mocked the outcome of an emergency meeting of the 26-nation alliance. "The mountain gave birth to a mouse," Rogozin told reporters.

In Georgia Tuesday, Russia continued to display its control over key locations and roads and despite repeated promises showed no clear signs of a withdrawal. "We have not seen any significant movement," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Russian forces briefly seized Georgia's main seaport of Poti and continued their grip on Gori, a city northwest of the capital of Tbilisi. In the Poti attack, about 100 heavily armed Russians arrived in six armored personnel carriers and seized at least two dozen Georgian soldiers standing guard. Five hours later, the Russians drove out of Poti in trucks with their captives blindfolded.

Russian forces also removed at least four U.S.-made Hummer military vehicles that port officials said were taken from an adjacent coast guard pier. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the Russian government had indicated it would secure the U.S. equipment. "We certainly expect that the Russians would return any equipment that is U.S. equipment, and return it quickly, if, in fact, they do have it," he said.

The modest outcome of the emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers, which was called at U.S. request, reflected divisions within the alliance over responding to the Russian invasion.

Some European powers, such as Germany, have favored restraint, anxious not to aggravate the crisis and jeopardize their energy supplies from Russia. Former Soviet bloc governments have advocated a tougher stance, anxious to deter the Kremlin from believing that it can reimpose its influence over its former empire.

"There are different sensibilities on this. There are states who want this process to move faster," said Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado. "The alliance has to take a united firm position, but without being aggressive."

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Turkey is continuing to deny the Bush administration's request to move the USS Comfort, a hospital ship docked in Baltimore, to head to the Georgian Coast through the Bosporus, a waterway Turkey controls under international agreement.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to put a positive spin on the outcome in Brussels, telling reporters that a statement issued by the foreign ministers "clearly shows that NATO intends to support the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Georgia and to support its democratically elected government."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disparaged the alliance efforts. He told a hastily convened Moscow news conference that NATO "is trying to make a victim of the aggressor, to absolve of guilt a criminal regime, to save a collapsed regime; and is taking a course to rearm the current leaders of Georgia."

He said the withdrawal of Russian troops to positions they held before the Aug. 7 invasion depended on a return of Georgian soldiers to their barracks.

"This still hasn't happened," he said. "Every day several episodes still occur when our servicemen detain Georgian troops."

In fact Russian forces continued Tuesday to occupy a military base at Senaki, in western Georgia, a day after air strikes left craters in the runway. And in Gori, loud blasts could be heard for much of the afternoon from the nearby Georgian military base, where the Russians have for days been systematically destroying equipment and weaponry.

Turning up the diplomatic heat on the Kremlin, the U.S. and France called a U.N. Security Council session to consider a resolution demanding that Russian and Georgian troops immediately withdraw in line with the ceasefire accord. The move effectively dared Russia to use its veto to block the measure.

In their statement, the NATO foreign ministers also called on Russia to immediately withdraw the tanks and troops it sent deep into Georgia on Aug. 7 after Georgian forces attempted to seize control of the Moscow-backed separatist province of South Ossetia.

"The alliance is considering seriously the implications of Russia's actions for the NATO-Russia relationship," said the statement. "We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual."

NATO Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer said that the alliance would not convene meetings of the NATO-Russia Consultative Council, a body created in 2002 to strengthen ties by discussing disputed issues, and engaging in cooperative programs from counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics to emergency planning and arms control.

The foreign ministers, however, did not terminate any of those programs, and Scheffer acknowledged the pressure within the alliance to take such action.

"No specific decisions on programs or projects have been taken. But I think one can assume that . . . that question will need to be provided with an answer soon," he told a news conference.

Scheffer said lines of communications with Moscow should not be severed. "We do not want to close all doors," he said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France wanted to avoid "using this sort of pressure," but he added that it also did not want the ceasefire accord to "remain a dead letter."

"We are very disappointed because despite the promise to us, there is no withdrawal of troops," Kouchner said. "When you sign up to an agreement, you have to respect it."

The foreign ministers affirmed NATO's opposition to any resolution to the conflict that would allow South Ossetia and another pro-Moscow rebel province, Abkhazia, to secede and join Russia, as the enclave leaders are demanding.

The foreign ministers also agreed to create a NATO-Georgia commission to strengthen relations between Georgia and the alliance, which the former Soviet republic is seeking to join.

Landay reported from Brussels and Bengali from Poti, Georgia. Nancy A. Youssef in Washington and Tom Lasseter in Gori, Georgia, contributed.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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