With Russia still defying U.S. demands to pull its troops from Georgia, the short, one-sided fight over two small mountain provinces widened Thursday into the sharpest exchanges yet between Washington and Moscow, threatening to unravel the post-Cold War consensus between them.
As Washington dispatched humanitarian relief, but no military aid, to its Georgian allies, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned that unless Russian forces relented from their incursion into Georgia, “the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.”
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov bluntly told the Georgians to “forget about” recovering the two secessionist provinces whose unsettled fate triggered this month’s fighting. Instead of withdrawing, as demanded a day earlier by President Bush, the Russian military plunged deeper into several towns in Georgia proper, Georgian officials said.
Despite official denials, Russian troops remained in control on the streets of Gori, a garrison city near the border with the rebel province of South Ossetia, setting up roadblocks into the city as Georgian forces looked on helplessly.
But the war over the Russian-backed provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia may already be having wider repercussions. U.S. and Polish officials Thursday signed a preliminary agreement to install part of Washington’s anti-ballistic missile defense shield in Poland, a system the U.S. says is aimed at protecting it and its European allies from attack by “rogue states” such as Iran, but which Moscow views as being directed against Russia.
The White House said the deal with Poland, hastily concluded after 18 months of negotiations, was not signed in response to the Russian incursion into Georgia. But the Bush administration has been scrambling to find concrete measures to match its rhetorical attacks on the more assertive posture of its former Cold War enemy.
Gates ruled out U.S. military engagement on behalf of Georgia, and said there were signs that Russian troops were preparing to withdraw. But at a Pentagon news conference, he described the Russian foray across the border in harsh language, accusing Moscow of aiming “to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West economically and politically and in security arrangements.”
The Russians showed no sign of rolling back their military gains. Receiving the presidents of the two rebel republics Thursday at the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made it plain that Russia would fight hard to support the republics’ independence.
“I’ll support any decision taken by the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Medvedev told the two leaders. “And we not only support these decisions but will guarantee them in the Caucasus and in the world.”
Gates said the Russians appeared to be destroying Georgian military assets in areas of the country under their control. Georgia’s U.N. ambassador, Irakli Alasania, accused Russia of violating a French-negotiated cease-fire in and around the towns of Zugdidi, Senaki, Poti and Gori.
He said the Russians were occupying a military base in Senaki and had destroyed a radar system and several vessels in the Black Sea port of Poti.
“Georgian cities remain subject to hostile and aggressive behavior,” Alasania said, adding that Russia’s leaders believe their action is “specifically targeted to eliminate Georgian statehood.”
Whatever Russia’s intention, there appeared to be little that Georgian security forces could do about it. At one point Thursday, Georgian police headed toward the strategically crucial city of Gori, intent on taking control -- only to be chased off by Russian troops.
While the Georgian security forces languished helplessly along the roadsides, Russians set up roadblocks and paralyzed one of the country’s main roads.
Nor did the Russians show any sign of heeding Bush’s warning to respect the “territorial integrity” of Georgia, a demand that produced a derisive response from Moscow.
“I think we can forget about talking about Georgia’s territorial integrity,” said Lavrov, the foreign minister, according to the Interfax news agency. “We do not want Georgia’s breakup, but neither the South Ossetians nor the Abkhaz want to live in the same state with a man who sends his troops against them.”
Russia’s United Nations ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, denied that Russian troops were occupying Gori.
Russian soldiers “are not in Gori, have never been in Gori and do not occupy Gori,” Churkin said, rejecting news reports that the town was in ruins. “Gori is there, with electricity and water.”
That view was contradicted by scenes on the outskirts of the city. Refugees continued to pour out of Gori and nearby villages, telling of burned houses, looting, killings and rape at the hands of militia-style fighters who entered Georgia on the heels of Russian soldiers.
Thick smoke climbed into the sky for a second day but, with the area closed by the Russian military, none of the allegations could be independently verified.
“The Chechens, the Cossacks, they destroyed everything and killed the livestock,” sobbed Maya Kandelai, a widow who arrived with her 10-year-old daughter at a shelter in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. When the Georgian army retreated from her village, the militias arrived, she said.
“They were robbing people. I just let the animals go into the orchards and run away.”
The irregular soldiers, described by witnesses as Chechen, Cossack and Ossetian “volunteers,” have been spotted around the uniformed Russian troops. Riding in pickup trucks, sometimes sporting masks or Russian flags, they have been blamed for much of the lawlessness that has gripped Gori and the surrounding countryside.
“They are working together,” said Yuza Popova, a Georgian military police commander who was waiting out the afternoon in the sparse shade of an abandoned bus stop on Gori’s outskirts. “The militia guys follow the soldiers, the soldiers support them and give them cover while they loot the villages.”
Meanwhile the humanitarian crisis worsens daily. Some of the refugees say they don’t know how they’ll ever go home again, especially ethnic Georgians who fled South Ossetia.
“Will the Americans help us out?” demanded Elizar Chavchavadze, a 57-year-old farmer who was having to sleep on the floor of a school in Tbilisi.
“So far, we haven’t seen any help.”
In the swelter of afternoon, Russian soldiers hunched at the edge of Gori said they hadn’t been fed for three days, but had foraged some food abandoned by the Georgians when they fled Gori.
Unexplained explosions shook the hills that rise over the road into the city. A line of three Russian tanks roared out of Gori at one point and headed toward Tbilisi before turning back. The feints toward the capital have been a semiregular feature, but still manage to get a rise out of the Georgian police.
Men struggled into flak jackets and stood gaping on the edge of the road. “Go, go, go!” the cry went up. Georgian police stuffed themselves into a pair of pickup trucks and chased after the tanks.
A few miles out of Gori, the tanks turned around and heaved back again, Georgians in pursuit. A short way down the road, an old woman, her black dress flapping in the wind, grabbed at passing cars. “Please take me to Gori!” she begged. “My grandchild was killed.”
But nobody stopped.
Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Tbilisi, Peter Spiegel in Washington and Maggie Farley and Richard Boudreaux at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Conflict in Caucasus
For a video of Russian and Georgian forces at a checkpoint, go to latimes.com/world.