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Russia Sends Mixed Signals Over Military Presence in Georgia

August 21, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Russia has said although it will withdraw the bulk of its troops from Georgia in coming days, it will maintain a military presence to protect South Ossetia. NPR correspondent Ivan Watson reports from Tbilisi.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, two reports from the war in Georgia. The first is from correspondent Ivan Watson of National Public Radio. Margaret Warner talked with him earlier this evening by phone from the Georgian capital.

MARGARET WARNER: Ivan Watson, thanks for being with us. The Russians say they’re leaving, but they are sending mixed signals as to when. What have you been seeing on the ground?

IVAN WATSON, National Public Radio: Margaret, I haven’t seen any sign of the Russians leaving. In fact, today I saw Russian troops on a hilltop on the road to Gori from the Georgian capital, and they were digging fresh trenches.

I’ve traveled to the west of this country and back and just really seen no sign at all that the hundreds of Russian soldiers and armored vehicles that I’ve seen, even a battery of Russian artillery, no sign whatsoever that they’re planning on packing up and going anytime soon.

MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned trenches. Are you seeing evidence that the Russians are preparing to stay on in some parts of Georgia, even after what they call withdrawal?

IVAN WATSON: Well, we did see the Russian defense minister yesterday put up maps at a press conference in Moscow where they indicated where they were planning on putting up a perimeter to protect the region of South Ossetia, which now looks like it’s going to be annexed to Russia, or at least never return to Georgian territory.

And this perimeter that the Russians showed had Russian positions up to 10 miles into Georgia, even overlooking this very critical east-west highway that the Russians are blockading to this day.

Russian patrols

Ivan Watson
National Public Radio
[T]hese are very demonstrative moves, shows of force, basically, to show that they are in charge and that the Georgian security forces basically have no say.

MARGARET WARNER: When you do encounter Russian troops, what are they doing? Do they patrol in the towns? Do they watch from observation posts outside?

IVAN WATSON: We do see Russian patrols moving around. For the most part, they're manning checkpoints and doing what soldiers do when they're stuck standing outside for a long time. They're smoking cigarettes, sitting around eating rations.

An interesting thing about these soldiers is that they are very polite with the press, very polite for the most part with the Georgian civilian population, not inebriated. It's not the behavior I have seen in Chechnya in years gone by where you had Russian conscripts sometimes out of control. These are professional soldiers.

In addition to that, though, we do see moves by the Russian military which appear very provocative, such as earlier this week when the Russian troops went into the port of Poti on Georgia's Black Sea coast, and they proceeded to detain at least 20 Georgian soldiers and drive them out in front of international media, blindfolded on top of their APCs, on their armored personnel carriers.

And these are very demonstrative moves, shows of force, basically, to show that they are in charge and that the Georgian security forces basically have no say, there's very little that they can do against them as they roam around this country.

And they're also blowing up Georgian military installations, as well, systematically taking them apart, dismantling them, blowing up weapons that they find there, and recall that the Georgian military has been trained by the U.S. military.

Humanitarian aid efforts

Ivan Watson
National Public Radio
[W]e have seen aid convoys going -- rolling through into the Russian-occupied Georgian town of Gori. The Russians have not been stopping those aid convoys.

MARGARET WARNER: And some of these facilities built to NATO specifications?

IVAN WATSON: Exactly. There was one called Senaki, and I was there earlier this week and heard the boom of what appeared to be controlled explosions. And the odd thing was standing outside the gate of this base that was built to NATO specifications with Georgian army officers in civilian clothes who could do nothing more than just watch from the outside and seethe in anger, literally.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the U.S. and other countries launched big humanitarian aid missions late last week. How visible is that? And is it getting to the Georgians who need it?

IVAN WATSON: You know, we have seen aid convoys going -- rolling through into the Russian-occupied Georgian town of Gori. The Russians have not been stopping those aid convoys.

And American military cargo planes land every day at the international airport, as well, bringing in additional humanitarian aid.

And in addition to that, we've had the head of USAID, as well as a four-star American general, visiting Tbilisi today to discuss how to continue this humanitarian effort. And the general who was here also mentioned the possibility of helping Georgia rebuild its military, as well.

Effects on life in Georgia

Ivan Watson
National Public Radio
You have to wonder, though, the longer this blockade continues, how much longer Georgian society, especially here in Tbilisi, can continue to function this way.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, what are President Saakashvili and the rest of the Georgian government doing? Does life in the capital feel at all normal?

IVAN WATSON: That's one of the strange things about this. I mean, a large chunk of this country is occupied by a foreign military.

One would argue that the capital itself is facing a blockade with the Russian military blocking the main highway out of here and with the railroad line mysteriously cut by an explosion on a bridge last weekend.

And yet life in the capital does seem relatively normal. There are a lot of Georgian flags on display. We see protests and demonstrations all the time. And the government has been very vocal, organizing press conferences, and repeating its defiance of the Russian occupation.

But, otherwise, it is pretty much life as usual here. You have to wonder, though, the longer this blockade continues, how much longer Georgian society, especially here in Tbilisi, can continue to function this way. Prices will eventually start to go up. You can't get supplies in. And currency reserves are likely to dwindle, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Ivan Watson, reporting to us from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Thank you.