Moscow, 15 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov played on one of the Russian Army's sorest points when he reiterated that Russia will most likely not complete a withdrawal of troops from its two remaining military bases in Georgia before 2014.
"Naturally, this issue has to be solved only through diplomacy. In addition, everyone is well aware -- and I stressed that point once again -- that anything similar to what happened in Germany, when we threw out our soldiers, officers, and weapons into empty fields and called that a withdrawal, is ruled out. That will not happen again," Ivanov said.
Georgia insists Russia must complete its pullout in line with a 1999 agreement. But Ivanov said a special treaty between Russia and Georgia is needed before funds for the withdrawal can be allocated.
"I think that agreement hasn't been reached because there is no principal agreement on the status of Georgia.... So Russia is stalling, and very consciously so."
The comparison to the 1994 withdrawal of Soviet troops based in Germany was designed to make an impression. Russian military officials have yet to accept the reality of that pullout, which added economic duress to an obvious aura of military defeat.
When they left, former Soviet soldiers ripped out toilets, taps, and doorknobs, knowing that back in Russia their sale may be their only sources of income. Officers with better connections sold military vehicles and weaponry on the sly. Following the withdrawal, the troops were involved in numerous scandals that made front page news in Russia -- such as exchanging tanks for crates of vodka -- further discrediting an army that was by then bogged down in Chechnya.
Alexander Pikayev is a defense analyst for the Carnegie Endowment. He says the withdrawal from Germany resonates deeply with the Russian military. "Of course, there was a big trauma among the military officers who were pulled out of Germany, sometimes to barracks [in Russia] that weren't so clean and that were in unsatisfactory conditions. And, of course, now they are pressuring the Kremlin so that situation doesn't happen again," Pikayev said.
While Moscow pulled out half-a-million troops from Germany within a few months, the timeline offered by Georgia and backed by the U.S. offers Russia three years to withdraw about 7,000 servicemen. Earlier this week, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe said the United States is prepared to help cover some of the costs of the Russian pullout. Germany paid Russia about 7.8 billion marks ($5.0 billion) for new military housing in Russia.
A Georgian official is quoted as saying that Moscow claims it will cost $500 million to withdraw its troops, a figure that has not been confirmed by Russia.
Pikayev says the financial aspect is meant to push the U.S. into an unacceptable position. Indeed, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said on 13 January that he couldn't immediately recall an offer to pay Russia to leave Georgia. He said: "I think what we have said is that we look to Russia to fulfill its Istanbul commitments."
Under agreements signed in 1999 in Istanbul at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia was to close the Vaziani and Gudauta bases by July 2001 and negotiate with Georgia toward the closure of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases.
However, talks have gotten nowhere, with Russia demanding a further 11 years for closing the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases and financial compensation for the relocation costs. Criticized last December by the OSCE for breaking the 1999 agreement, Russia rejected any notion of a "commitment" to withdrawal, insisting it only has an "intention." Ivanov himself says the stumbling block is less about money than about political issues.
"We would have to build new military garrisons and, most importantly, the Finance Ministry of the Russian Federation will consider allocating funds [for the withdrawal] only after a bilateral treaty between Russia and Georgia is signed. As of today, there is no such agreement," Ivanov said.
Mikhail Alexandrov is a Georgia specialist with the CIS Institute, a Moscow-based think tank. He says Moscow can't face Georgia's stated intention of joining NATO: "I think that agreement hasn't been reached because there is no principal agreement on the status of Georgia, about the way Georgia will behave in international relations. So Russia is stalling, and very consciously so. And it will continue to [stall] until Georgia determines its international bearings and commits to some obligations. When Georgia obliges itself to neutrality, then the issue of the withdrawal of the bases will be solved."
Pikayev says Russia may also be trying to negotiate access to its bases in Armenia through Georgian territory, as well as to Georgian airports and ports. Alexandrov also says Moscow may be stalling in the hope that future political events in Georgia will play out in its favor. Pikayev also believes time could work in Russia's favor, observing that the regions where the bases are located are pressuring Tbilisi to retain them.
The Russian daily "Niezavisimaya gazeta" -- noted for its coverage of the CIS -- called Ivanov's statements the "opening of a new Cold War era."
Until Russia fulfills its commitment to withdraw, the U.S. and its NATO allies are refusing to ratify the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. The accord is an updated version of an existing treaty that limits the number of tanks, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters deployed in Europe by 30 countries, including the United States and Russia.
The Kremlin wants the revised accord to enter into force soon so that the three Baltic countries, which currently don't have arms limits, accede to it. According to the Arms Control Association, a U.S.-based think tank, Moscow has suggested NATO could stockpile huge amounts of weaponry along Russia's western border.
Ivanov today said Russia is concerned about the possible relocation of U.S. bases in Europe closer to its borders. He said Washington has informed Moscow that it is considering moving its military bases from Germany to Poland, Romania, and some other Eastern European countries. Ivanov said the approaching of any NATO military forces closer to Russia's borders is a cause for concern.