Accessibility links

Russia's Make-Believe Withdrawal From Georgia

A Russian checkpoint at Georgian-South Ossetian border on October 9

A Russian checkpoint at Georgian-South Ossetian border on October 9

Let's stop pretending.

Russia has not withdrawn its troops from Georgia. It has not, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claimed on October 9, "fulfilled all obligations." And it has certainly not honored an EU-backed cease-fire deal to end hostilities between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Not even close.

And yet the West continues to play along with Moscow's game of make-believe, praising Russia's "withdrawal" and hinting that a return to business as usual could be in the cards. With the first round of EU-sponsored talks in Geneva on the Russia-Georgia conflict just hours away, Moscow is also -- unsurprisingly -- eager to turn the page.

The question is whether the West will let it.

Under the terms of the cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russia and Georgia are each required to pull back their troops to the positions they held before armed conflict broke out on August 7-8. Georgia complied long ago.

Moscow was required to withdraw all troops from Georgia proper and reduce its total presence in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia to preconflict levels of 2,500 peacekeepers.

In fact, Russia is more than tripling its forces in those separatist regions to an eye-popping 7,600 heavily armed soldiers. And in a clear sign that this will be a long-term presence, Russians have already built a steel and concrete garrison in the strategic South Ossetian town of Java.

Moreover, Russian troops remain in South Ossetia's Akhalgori district and the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia -- both of which Tbilisi controlled before the war.

Russia is also not allowing EU monitors to enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as required under the cease-fire agreement. This is not surprising given the reports coming from groups like Human Rights Watch documenting how Russian-backed South Ossetian militias have been burning down ethnic-Georgian villages in the region. Moscow and its clients in Tskhinvali are also not allowing tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians, displaced by the recent conflict, to return to their homes in South Ossetia -- which is also required by the cease-fire.

So what was it that Medvedev meant when he announced to great fanfare on October 9 that Russia had withdrawn from Georgia and complied with the cease-fire?

Apparently he simply meant that Russia had pulled out from the so-called buffer zones that Moscow unilaterally set up around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But in reality, Russia has not even done this. One Russian checkpoint, in the town of Perevi near the administrative border with South Ossetia, remains.

Moscow, of course, claims Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now independent countries and that Russian troops are there by the invitation of the governments in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. In reality, no country save Russia and Nicaragua recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent.

The truth of the matter, no matter how you spin it, is that Russia is in clear violation of the cease-fire.

Nevertheless, with talks starting in Geneva, Moscow has decided the best defense is a good offense. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Russia's top priority is to secure an arms embargo against Tbilisi that would remain in place as long as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili remains in power. This only serves to reinforce the strong impression in Tbilisi and elsewhere that Moscow's real goal in Georgia is regime change.

The conflict in Georgia and its aftermath have the potential to set precedents for a newly resurgent Russia's relations with its neighbors and with the West. Either Moscow can continue to bully its neighbors secure in the knowledge that the EU and the United States will still treat it like a valued partner, or the Kremlin will discover the hard way that such behavior has consequences.

Longtime Russia watcher Edward Lucas, author of the book "The New Cold War," wrote in the "Financial Times" on October 8 that for Moscow "the lesson of the Georgian adventure is simple: we got away with it."

And get away with it they will, unless the West decides to stop pretending.

David Kakabadze is the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, and Brian Whitmore is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Show comments