"It is rare that all the blame is on one side. In fact, both sides are probably to blame. That is very important to understand,"
SIGNS OF NEW COLD WAR???
The risk of a new era of east-west confrontation triggered by Russia's invasion of Georgia heightened yesterday when Moscow reserved the right to launch a nuclear attack on Poland because it agreed to host US rockets as part of the Pentagon's missile shield.
As Washington accused Russia of "bullying and intimidation" in Georgia and demanded an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from the small Black Sea neighbour, Russia's deputy chief of staff turned on Warsaw and said it was vulnerable to a Russian rocket attack because of Thursday's pact with the US on the missile defence project.
"By deploying, Poland is exposing itself to a strike - 100%," warned Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn. He added that Russia's security doctrine allowed it to use nuclear weapons against an active ally of a nuclear power such as America.
The warning worsened the already dismal mood in relations between Moscow and the west caused by the shock of post-Soviet Russia's first invasion of a foreign country.
There were scant signs of military activity on the ground in Georgia, but nor were there any signs of the Russian withdrawal pledged on Tuesday under ceasefire terms mediated by the European Union.
Instead, the focus was on a flurry of diplomatic activity that exposed acute differences on how Washington and Berlin see the crisis in the Caucasus.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, went to Tbilisi to bolster Georgia against the Russians as President George Bush denounced Russian "bullying and intimidation" as "unacceptable".
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, met Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev on the Black Sea close to Georgia's borders and sent quite a different message, offering a mild rebuke of Moscow.
"Some of Russia's actions were not proportionate," she said.
Unlike the Americans and some European states who are saying the Russians should face "consequences" for their invasion, Merkel said negotiations with Moscow on a whole range of issues would continue as before and spread the blame for the conflict. "It is rare that all the blame is on one side. In fact, both sides are probably to blame. That is very important to understand," she said.
In Tbilisi, Rice was much more forthright, saying that the invasion had "profound implications for Russia ... This calls into question what role Russia really plans to play in international politics.
"You can't be a responsible member of institutions which are democratic and underscore democratic values and on the other hand act in this way against one of your neighbours."
The Russians have been refusing to pull back their forces in Georgia until President Mikheil Saakashvili signed the six-point ceasefire plan arranged by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France earlier this week, although the Russians had refused to sign it themselves.
Saakashvili signed yesterday, while accusing the Russians of being "evil" and "21st century barbarians". Rice said Medvedev had also signed it.
"Russia has every time been testing the reaction of the west. It's going to replicate what happened in Georgia elsewhere," said Saakashvili. "We are looking evil directly in the eye. Today this evil is very strong, and very dangerous for everybody, not just for us."
Rice's show of solidarity with Georgia's beleaguered president was theatrically undermined when Russia dispatched a column of armoured personnel carriers towards the Georgian capital.
As the talks were taking place, 10 armoured personnel carriers laden with Russian troops set off from Gori, penetrating to within 20 miles of Tbilisi.
"Georgia has been attacked. Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once," said Rice. The withdrawal "must take place, and take place now ... This is no longer 1968," she added in reference to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia 40 years ago next week.
The ceasefire terms favour the Russians who routed the Georgians. But the secretary of state argued the plan would not affect negotiations over the central territorial dispute between Georgia and the two breakaway pro-Russian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The deal allows Russian troops to remain in the two provinces and to mount patrols and "take additional security measures" on Georgian territory beyond the two enclaves.
Senior Russians continued to insist yesterday that Russian troops had not stepped outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia despite the fact they have been deep inside Georgian territory in several places all week.
"Our ground forces never crossed the border of the conflict zone," said Sergei Ivanov, the deputy prime minister.
Moscow also indicated it would resist possible European attempts to deploy international peacekeepers in the contested territories.
"We are not against international peacekeepers," the Russian president said. "But the problem is that the Abkhazians and the Ossetians do not trust anyone except Russian peacekeepers." He also attacked the agreement between Washington and Warsaw on the missile shield and said claims that the shield was aimed at Iran were "fairy tales"
"This clearly demonstrates the deployment of new anti-missile forces in Europe has as its aim the Russian Federation," said Medvedev. "The moment has been well chosen."
The timing of Thursday's agreement on missile defence means that tensions are soaring on Russia's southern and western borders.
Polish armed forces yesterday paraded in Warsaw to mark a rare defeat of the Russians 888 years ago and President Lech Kaczynski hailed the accord on the Pentagon project as a boost for Poland's security.
In return for hosting 10 interceptor rockets said to be intended to destroy any eventual ballistic missile attacks from Iran, Poland is to receive a battery of US Patriot missiles for its air defences and has won a mutual security pact with Washington.
Russia tells West to 'forget' Georgian rule in enclaves
Russia positioned itself yesterday as the unequivocal victor in its brief war with Georgia, with its Foreign Minister stating that the world could "forget about" Georgian control of two separatist enclaves.
The Kremlin and the Bush administration stepped up the rhetoric as the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, stopped in France to meet Nicolas Sarkozy on her way to Tbilisi. The French President brokered a fragile ceasefire between Russia and Georgia earlier in the week.
Speaking after President George Bush insisted on the respect of Georgian territorial integrity, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, rejected any such talk. President Dmitry Medvedev drove home the message by meeting in the Kremlin with the two separatist leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, said: "If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the US-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come."
As Russian troops slowly withdrew from deep inside the former Soviet republic, there were reports that they were destroying airfields and military installations as they went, further crippling the Georgian army, which, despite its US training, has been battered and demoralised.
As Georgian troops moved out of Tbilisi back towards Gori, which they had abandoned on Tuesday, the Russian army said it would take at least two days to leave the city, having earlier denied being there at all. Russian troops also destroyed military vessels in Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti. The aim, said analysts, was to prevent Georgia from renewing military hostilities in its breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the medium-term future.
Violence has continued inside South Ossetia, with reports that Georgian villages are being looted and burnt to ensure their residents can never return. Fears were growing yesterday that the French-brokered peace plan was unravelling because of vague language that allowed Russian forces to take care of "additional security measures" in Georgia. French and British diplomats have begun work on a draft resolution to put the plan before the United Nations Security Council.
Meanwhile, two planes carrying humanitarian aid from the US arrived in Tbilisi yesterday in a symbolic gesture meant to show American support for Georgia. In reality, Washington has done everything possible to avoid getting involved in the conflict and the claim by the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, that the American mission to Georgia would involve defending the country's ports and airports was swiftly shot down by American officials. Mr Gates acknowledged that Washington would not use military force.
Most analysts doubt that the Russians ever had plans to launch a land assault on the Georgian capital, but according to those close to the Georgian government, there was a genuine belief in Tbilisi that a full-scale invasion was planned.
"When Bush made his speech promising humanitarian aid, everybody started whooping, cheering, high-fiving," said one government adviser, who had been at the country's National Security Council at the time. "They realised that this would really spook the Russians." The Georgians got another boost as Mr Saakashvili welcomed a group of 50 Estonian military volunteers.
In Moscow, Russian politicians and analysts were furious about what they saw as hypocrisy from the West. "Have you all forgotten about Iraq?" asked Sergei Markedonov, a Moscow-based analyst of the Caucasus. "Georgia was part of Russia for 200 years... and what Saakashvili was doing in South Ossetia threatened the stability of the whole north Caucasus."
*Poland reached an agreement with the US yesterday to place a battery of American missiles inside Poland. Russia has objected to the deal in which the US will place 10 missile defence interceptors in the country while augmenting Poland's defences with Patriot missiles.