THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 18, 2008
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — Even as Russia pledged to begin withdrawing its forces from neighboring Georgia on Monday, American officials said the Russian military had been moving launchers for short-range ballistic missiles into South Ossetia, a step that appeared intended to tighten its hold on the breakaway territory.
The Russian military deployed several SS-21 missile launchers and supply vehicles to South Ossetia on Friday, according to American officials familiar with intelligence reports. From the new launching positions north of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, the missiles can reach much of Georgia, including Tbilisi, the capital.
The Kremlin announced Sunday that Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, had promised to begin the troop withdrawal in a conversation with PresidentNicolas Sarkozy of France, who negotiated a six-point cease-fire agreement. Mr. Medvedev did not specify the pace or scope of the withdrawal, saying only that troops would withdraw to South Ossetia and a so-called security zone on its periphery.
The United States and European leaders reacted with wariness, and Russia’s recent military moves appeared to add an element of frustration.
“Well, I just know that the Russian president said several days ago Russian military operations would stop. They didn’t,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This time I hope he means it. You know the word of the Russian president needs to be upheld by his forces.”
Russia’s efforts to strengthen its military position in the region have important political and military implications. American officials have demanded that Russian troops pull back from their positions inside Georgia and that the Russian military presence in the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia be limited to the Russian peacekeeping force that was there before the conflict erupted earlier this month. Ultimately, American officials say, the Russian peacekeepers themselves should be replaced by a neutral, international peacekeeping force.
But instead of thinning out their forces in South Ossetia, the Russians appear to have been consolidating their presence there by deploying SS-21 missile launchers and, American officials say, by installing surface-to-air missiles near their military headquarters in Tskhinvali. Such moves appear to buttress assertions last week by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are to be separated from Georgia.
Western officials have also been monitoring Russian troop movements, which may be intended to strengthen Russian forces in and around Georgia. A battalion from Russia’s 76th Guards Airborne Division has been deployed from Pskov to Beslan, a city in North Ossetia. Several additional battalions from the 98th Guards Airborne Division at Kostroma also appeared to be preparing over the weekend for possible deployment to the Caucasus region.
Beyond South Ossetia, the Russian military has taken other steps to raise its profile. In recent days, several Bear-H bombers have carried out training missions over the Black Sea, according to American officials familiar with intelligence reports. The training flights are the first flights that a Bear bomber has flown over the Black Sea in at least two years, according to American military experts. The Russian bombers are capable of carrying non-nuclear cruise missiles, and government intelligence analysts have told the Pentagon that a recent Bear training flight appeared to simulate a cruise-missile attack against Georgia.
The Russian moves are seen at the Pentagon as a way for Russia to show that it considers its sphere of influence to include Georgia and other parts of the so-called near abroad zones — Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus and the Caspian — near Russian territory. In general, the actions are seen as a matter of muscle flexing, or “force projection,” in Pentagon parlance, and are not viewed as signs that Russia intends to make a major military push to take Tbilisi.
Russian officials may also be calculating that their nation’s military presence in the area may make some NATO members more skeptical toward accepting Georgia into the alliance. While the United States has strongly supported Georgia’s membership, some allied officials fear they may be dragged into a war in the Caucasus if Georgia is admitted.
Concerns over the military tensions in the region may already have influenced some neighbors. American officials said Turkish officials had denied the United States’ request that an American Navy hospital ship, the Comfort, be allowed to travel through the Turkish straits en route to Georgia. A Bush administration official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomatic discussions, expressed hope that American officials would eventually persuade the Turkish government to let the ship pass.
The conflict began Aug. 7 when Georgian troops entered the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has strong ties to Russia, and Russia responded by sending its own troops deep into Georgian territory. The Kremlin has said Georgia provoked the conflict in South Ossetia, whose populace is hostile to Georgia, and Russian officials have referred to Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, as a war criminal. Mr. Saakashvili has contended that Russia is determined to turn Georgia into the kind of vassal state that existed during Soviet times.
Though Mr. Medvedev announced the end of hostilities last Wednesday, Russian troops have remained in the central city of Gori, which is 40 miles from Tbilisi, and they continue to occupy wide swaths of territory. On Sunday, Western leaders pressed, with increasing unanimity, for Russia to withdraw. Mr. Sarkozy said there would be “serious consequences” for relations between Russia and the European Union if Russian compliance was not “rapid and complete.”
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Tbilisi to meet with Mr. Saakashvili, warned that “this process should not drag out for weeks.” Ms. Merkel also reiterated her previous support for Georgia’s eventual membership in NATO, a step Russia has fiercely opposed.
The deployment of SS-21 missile launchers to South Ossetia has added to the United States’ concerns. The SS-21 is a short-range ballistic missile carried on a mobile launcher. It can be used to attack enemy command posts and airfield and troop concentrations. Russian forces used the missile in the Chechnya conflict, where it was believed to have caused significant civilian casualties.
James F. Jeffrey, the American deputy national security adviser, told reporters earlier this month that President Bush was informed on Aug. 8 that two SS-21s had been fired into Georgia. He said Mr. Bush “immediately” met with Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, who was also attending the Olympics in Beijing, to express concern over the Russian military actions.
Fragments of an SS-21 missile have been found near a police station in the port city of Poti. The rocket struck a police vehicle in front of the station.
But those missiles were fired from Russian territory, an American official said Sunday. In recent days, the official said, SS-21 missile launchers, as well as supply vehicles, have driven south through the Roki Tunnel into South Ossetia and been deployed on an elevated area about 10 miles north of Tskhinvali. That would put them within range of much of Georgia, including Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, and Tbilisi itself, adding to Russia’s ability to intimidate its neighbor.
The original cease-fire agreement has been shuttled between Moscow and Tbilisi several times as changes were requested by the Russian and Georgian leaders, who do not disguise their mutual contempt. Among the points left unclear is how far Russian troops will draw back. Under the agreement, Russians have claimed a broad mandate to back up peacekeeping operations both in and out of the conflict zone.
Mr. Medvedev said Sunday that Russian troops would pull back to a security zone established in 1999 by the Joint Control Commission, an international body created to monitor seething tensions between ethnic Georgians and Ossetians. The commission designated a “conflict zone” of about 9 miles around Tskhinvali, as well as a long “security corridor,” which extends about 8 miles into Georgian-held areas.
Georgia’s foreign minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, said the current form of the document limits Russian military operations to no more than about 9 miles from the border of South Ossetia; prohibits Russian troops from entering urban areas or blocking roads; allows only patrols, as opposed to checkpoints; and would be prohibited as soon as international peacekeepers arrive.
Despite the Kremlin’s pledge of a pullout from Georgia, long lines of Russian military vehicles snaked south on Sunday along the main road from Tskhinvali to Gori in South Ossetia. Large transport trucks carrying power generators, troops, bags of potatoes, chairs and tables wound their way through the villages. A reporter driving south on the road passed lines of vehicles for nearly 40 minutes.
But the Russian troop presence in Gori was sharply reduced from several days ago. A large former military academy and its parking lot, last week the center of operations for Russian soldiers in Gori, was empty on Saturday. Virtually no Russian troops were visible in the city itself, aside from a few tanks at checkpoints. Vehicles from the Russian Ministry for Emergencies, bringing humanitarian aid and rescuing elderly people, outnumbered the military vehicles.
Reporting was contributed by Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry from Moscow; Andrew E. Kramer, C. J. Chivers and Sabrina Tavernise from Tbilisi, Georgia; Matt Siegel from Tskhinvali, Georgia; Joao Silva and Justyna Mielnikiewicz from Kaspi, Georgia, Michael Schwirtz from Poti, Georgia; and Thom Shanker from Washington.