- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia | Russia announced Tuesday that it would keep 7,600 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the foreseeable future, asserting power in the breakaway regions even as it began a pullout from positions deeper in Georgia.

The Kremlin’s plans for a heavy military footprint in the enclaves mock Georgia’s hopes that a revised peace agreement will lead to a complete Russian withdrawal from the fractured country at the heart of a bitter fray between Moscow and the West.

The deal that emerged from a day of frantic French diplomacy Monday may defuse tension by removing Russian forces from positions they hold in Georgia weeks after last month’s war.

After hours of talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised to withdraw all Russian forces from positions outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia within about a month.

But even as it promises to pull back from positions outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia is strengthening its grip on the separatist regions themselves. That runs counter to Western demands that the regions remain a part of Georgia and casts a shadow over President Mikhail Saakashvili’s hopes of uniting the nation.

On Tuesday, Russian forces pulled out of a position near Abkhazia, officials and residents said. Georgia’s Rustavi-2 television showed residents of the Black Sea coastal town of Ganmukhuri rejoicing at the Russian departure.

Russia’s RIA-Novosti news agency cited a Defense Ministry official as saying that a full withdrawal had begun Tuesday.

In Moscow, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told Mr. Medvedev in a televised meeting Tuesday that about 3,800 troops each will be based in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia - a far larger presence than before the war.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested they would stay indefinitely, saying they were needed to prevent Georgia from trying to regain control of the regions, which Russia has recognized as independent.

“They will remain there for a long time,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters of the troops. “Their presence there will be needed at least for the foreseeable future to prevent any relapses of aggressive actions.”

Russia repelled Georgia’s Aug. 7 offensive against South Ossetia and sent troops and tanks deep into Georgia. Most Russian troops withdrew late last month but ringed the regions with checkpoints and deployed hundreds of soldiers near the Black Sea port of Poti.

On Tuesday, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin circulated a draft resolution to the Security Council that would order all countries to take measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of arms to Georgia. Mr. Churkin said Russia knows it can expect strong opposition from some council members, particularly the United States.

A senior U.S. official, Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman, told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday that the United States is reviewing how to help Georgia rebuild its military.

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