Sunday, August 17, 2008

Gates Voices Doubts About Swift Withdrawal of Russian Forces from Georgia

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today expressed skepticism that Moscow would quickly remove its forces from Georgia, despite a reported pledge by the Russian president to begin a drawdown tomorrow.

Gates said the rate of withdrawal is partly tied to how fast the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe could get monitors to Georgia, where Russian tanks and troops entered last week and reportedly remain entrenched in some areas.

"My own view is that the Russians will probably stall and perhaps take more time than anybody would like," Gates said in an interview with CNN. "I think we just need to keep the pressure and ensure that they abide by the agreement that they've signed and do so in a timely way."

Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev yesterday signed a French-brokered peace deal, a move that came a day after Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili endorsed the agreement. The plan includes a drawdown of military forces to levels that existed before Russia's Aug. 8 invasion of the former Soviet republic.

Medvedev reportedly announced today that it would start pulling out its troops tomorrow, a reduction of force that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Moscow to uphold.

"I hope he intends to honor the pledge this time," Rice said of Medvedev on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"The word of the Russian president needs to be upheld by his forces or people are going to begin to wonder if Russia can be trusted," said Rice, citing recent examples of broken Russian promises to drawdown troops.

Asked what kind of measures would be available to censure Russia if it fails to deliver on its vow, Gates said there is "a broad menu of possibilities."

"I think there needs to be a strong, unified response to Russia to send the message that this kind of behavior, characteristic of the Soviet period, has no place in the 21st century," Gates said.

"I think we just have to work with our allies and, above all, we need to look at what Russia does from here on in terms of the severity of whatever measures would be considered," he added.

Fighting that began in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia last week broadened to include Russian attacks on other parts of the country, including Abkhazia, another heavily separatist region. As clashes escalated, the conflict fueled fears that Moscow would attempt to depose the democratically elected government in Georgia and that Russian aggression could spread to other parts of the region.

But Gates tempered such speculative concerns, expressing hope that Russia's invasion of Georgia will be viewed in hindsight as anomalous.

"My hope is that their actions in the weeks and months ahead will provide some reassurance that these actions in Georgia are an aberration and not symptomatic of a new approach by Russia to the rest of the world and to their neighbors that looks a lot like the old Soviet Union," he said.

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