Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Russia promises to enforce the peace

9th August 2008 16:37

Russia warned Georgia it would bomb any part of Georgian territory used to attack Russian troops in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, vowing to establish full military control over the disputed enclave. 

Speaking two days after a “frozen conflict” in the tiny unrecognized republic on Russia’s southern flank became hot, an audibly furious Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would ignore international calls for a cease-fire, calls he called “cynical.”

“Whatever part of Georgia is used for this aggression is not safe,” he told reporters. “We will be enforcing peace.” He said Russia was in no mood to “bargain” and accused Georgia of perpetrating “a massacre.”

His words appeared to confirm Georgian claims that Russian jets had bombed military facilities in Georgia proper as well as the port of Poti. 

Mr. Lavrov spoke as President Dmitry Medvedev held a crisis meeting at the Ministry of Defence and as extra Russian reinforcements poured into the tiny region that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Russian commanders on the ground said they had secured almost total control of South Ossetia’s bomb-ravaged capital and were moving to push back Georgian forces beyond the so-called conflict zone.   

Hostilities erupted late on Thursday night when Georgian forces tried to take back the republic using tanks, artillery and jets in order to “restore constitutional order.” They said they were forced to act after South Ossetian forces began to shell villages in Georgia proper. Moscow said Georgia had simply decided to regain control of a territory Georgia insists belongs within its own borders.

Mr. Lavrov said the death toll in the conflict had reached about 1,500. He said 15 Russian troops had been killed and fifty more wounded.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has claimed that at least thirty Georgian troops have been killed. He has sought to portray the conflict as a battle between the Western values he espouses and Russian aggression. 

In Moscow, pro-Kremlin youth activists picketed the Georgian embassy chanting “Saakashvili is a fascist.” They also demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy as anti-American sentiment grew.

Georgia is a staunch U.S. ally and around 2,000 Georgian troops fight alongside the Americans in Iraq. Washington has supplied Georgia with military advisers and equipment in recent years. Much to Russia’s anger, it has also encouraged Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO. This has sparked Russian claims of U.S. meddling in a region it considers its own sphere of influence.     

Mr. Lavrov lashed out at the United States and the West in general for supporting Saakashvili, accusing them of appeasement.

“Those who have been supplying arms (to Georgia) should feel a sense of blame,” he said.

Russian state media, which has for years portrayed Saakashvili as mentally unhinged, broadcast disturbing images of civilian suffering in South Ossetia. Almost ninety percent of South Ossetians hold Russian passports given to them in recent years by Moscow in order to strengthen Russian influence in the enclave.

Russia said it was forced to come to the aid of its own citizens “wherever they may be” and act as the peacemaker.

Aided by U.S. public relations specialists, the Kremlin tried to get the upper hand in an information war being played out on cable news channels such as CNN.

Mr. Lavrov said Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, was a skilled propagandist who knew the Western public well and how to get through to them.

In Russia, much was also made of the fact that Russia’s contingent of peacekeepers in South Ossetia was attacked along with South Ossetian units last Thursday. Georgia described the some 500 troops as an occupying force. Russia insists that the force, which had been in place since 1992, was helping hold a fragile cease-fire.     

Mr. Lavrov said the only way the situation could be deescalated was for Georgia to completely withdraw from the region and sign a legally binding pledge that it would never again use force to resolve what has become a festering territorial dispute.

South Ossetians, who number only around 70,000, are ethnically distinct from Georgians and have made no secret of their desire to be absorbed into Russia. But Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly promised the Georgian people that he will bring it and another breakaway republic called Abkhazia back into the Georgian fold.