Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday said Georgia’s territorial integrity was “de facto limited because of the war” and said any agreement suggesting otherwise would be “deeply insulting” to the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two pro-Russian Georgian territories.
Mr. Lavrov’s language was a direct response to President Bush, who a day earlier criticized Russian advances into Georgia and insisted “that the sovereign and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected.”
Meanwhile in Georgia, Russian forces briefly allowed the Georgian police to return to the city of Gori on Thursday morning, but joint patrols were canceled three hours later and the city returned to Russian control.
Gori was the focus of international protest after Russia shelled it and occupied it on Wednesday.
The United States and Georgia called the Russian advance into Gori and into another strategic Georgian city a violation of a cease-fire agreement agreed only hours earlier. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was heading to France and Georgia on Thursday for discussions on the crisis. She was due to meet the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the cease-fire between Russia and Georgia, in the president’s summer residence in southern France, at 3 p.m., local time, Mr. Sarkozy’s office said. The visit was announced after Mr. Sarkozy spoke to Mr. Bush by telephone on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, President Bush sent American troops to Georgia to oversee a “vigorous and ongoing” humanitarian mission, in a direct challenge to Russia’s display of military dominance over the region. Mr. Bush demanded that Russia abide by the cease-fire and withdraw its forces or risk its place in “the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century.” It was his strongest warning yet of potential retaliation against Russia over the conflict.
However, Mr. Lavrov, speaking in an interview on Ekho Moskvy, said he was not worried about the threat of international isolation. The joint patrols in Gori Thursday suggested cooling tensions in the city.
Gori is just 40 miles from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and rumors had circulated on Wednesday of a possible advance on the capital.
It was not clear why the joint patrols failed, but it appeared that personnel on the ground were in conflict. Around 10 a.m. Thursday, a Russian Army major gave orders to Georgian and Russian police officers to patrol in pairs. But this clearly did not last. “We had to go or there would have been shooting,” said a Georgian officer, who would not give his name.
More than 30 Georgian police left Gori and returned to a Georgian post outside the city and shortly afterward Russian troops fired three artillery rounds. Their target was not clear.
The decision Wednesday to send the American military, even on a humanitarian mission, deepened the United States’ commitment to Georgia and America’s allies in the former Soviet sphere, just as Russia has been determined to reassert its control in the area.
On a day the White House evoked emotional memories of the cold war, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday that the relief effort was intended “to show to Russia that we can come to the aid of a European ally, and that we can do it at will, whenever and wherever we want.” At a minimum, American forces in Georgia will test Russia’s pledge to allow relief supplies into the country; they could also deter further Russian attacks, though at the risk of a potential military confrontation.
“We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit,” Mr. Bush said. “We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia, and we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country.”President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, who has sharply criticized what he called a failure of the West to support his country, declared the U.S. relief operation a “turning point” in the conflict, which began last Thursday when Georgian forces tried to establish control in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, only to be routed by the Russians.
“We were unhappy with the initial actions of the American officials, because they were perceived by the Russians as green lines, basically, but this one was very strong,” he said in a telephone interview after Mr. Bush’s statement in Washington.
Explosions heard in Gori Thursday were the result of Russian troops clearing unexploded ordnance, the Interior Ministry said.
Earlier it said Georgian police had begun returning to Gori as Russian forces moved out.
Meanwhile the leaders of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia visited Moscow, where Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Georgia's current borders were "limited," a hint that the two breakaway regions may never agree to rejoin it.
The news followed scattered reports of Russian troops movements inside Georgia, outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia's Foreign Ministry said Thursday the Russian troops were moving back into the Black Sea port city of Poti, where the Russians had bombed targets including a military installation and ships.
Russian peacekeeping troops were also in the western Georgian city of Zugdidi, just outside Abkhazia. Video showed the Russians -- clearly wearing the blue helmets which signify their peacekeeper status -- at the official government residence in the town.
The leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were in Moscow to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The men were discussing the future status of the breakaway regions, which have been autonomous within Georgia.
Their meeting, and Lavrov's comments, raised questions about the complicated and sensitive issue of Georgia's borders after the fighting. Watch more on aid for Georgia »
"De facto territorial integrity of Georgia is limited because of the conflict, and this problem can be solved only through [the] search for mutual solutions," Lavrov said in an interview with the radio station Echo of Moscow.
In Gori, Georgia's Interior Ministry said its police would establish checkpoints and try to keep law and order. Their return to the city was negotiated with Russia Wednesday. Watch more on withdrawal of Russian troops »
Once the police had established their presence, the Russians troops -- some of whom are still in the city -- would fully withdraw, Georgian officials said.