POTI, Georgia (Reuters) - Small numbers of Russian troops dug in deep inside Georgia on Sunday and Western states demanded Moscow’s forces leave a Black Sea port, two days after Moscow said it had wrapped up its withdrawal.
Russia says the residual troops are peacekeepers needed to avert further bloodshed and to protect the people of Georgia’s separatist, pro-Moscow provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The United States and Europe fear the Russian presence will cement Georgia’s ethnic partition, undermine the pro-Western government of President Mikheil Saakashvili and threaten vital energy pipelines criss-crossing the country’s territory.
Particularly worrisome for Tbilisi and the West is a checkpoint set up at the port of Poti, which lies outside the security zone Russia says is covered by its peacekeeping mandate and is hundreds of km (miles) from South Ossetia.
“Putting up permanent facilities and checkpoints are inconsistent with the (ceasefire) agreement,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
EU president France, which helped broker a ceasefire in the confrontation that erupted on August 7-8, urged Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev to order Russian forces out of Poti in a telephone conversation on Saturday.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy “insisted it was important that Russian troops present at the Poti/Senaki area should withdraw as soon as possible,” a French statement said.
The Kremlin said Sarkozy had given a “positive assessment” of the Russian pullout.
Though not Georgia’s busiest port for oil, Poti can load up to 100,000 barrels per day of oil products, which arrive by rail from Azerbaijan. Poti is also the gateway for merchandise moving to Georgia, other Caucasus republics and Central Asia.
“Why do they want to take control of Poti?... Maybe they want to grab Poti from us. While we are still alive we will not allow them to stay here,” said Roland Silagava, 60, at a Georgian protest rally at the Poti checkpoint on Saturday.
The 20 or so Russian soldiers, sporting peacekeeper badges, just smiled and said they did not expect to stay there long.
The conflict broke out when Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia. A Russian counter-offensive pushed into Georgia proper, crossing its East-West highway and nearing a Western-backed oil pipeline.
They also moved into Western Georgia from Abkhazia, another breakaway region on the Black Sea. Hundreds of people were killed, tens of thousands displaced and housing and infrastructure wrecked in the conflict.
Sarkozy’s office said he and Medvedev on Saturday had agreed on the urgency of creating an international mechanism under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to replace Russian patrols in the buffer zone south of South Ossetia.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said only peacekeepers from countries acceptable to South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists could be effective in the region, and made clear they will not accept anyone apart from Russians.
Despite repeated demands for a complete Russian pullback to positions prior to the conflict the West lacks leverage over a resurgent Russia whose oil and gas it sorely needs.
A U.S. trade official said Russia’s actions could affect its membership of the Group of Eight industrialized nations and its bid to join the World Trade Organization.
“That is all at risk now,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was quoted as saying by Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly.
Analysts say excluding or isolating Russia would anger it further and make it even less amenable to Western demands.
The U.S. envoy to the Caucasus said Russia had inadvertently helped Georgia’s bid for NATO membership with its actions. Moscow sees Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics as part of its legitimate sphere of influence and opposes them joining NATO.
“I think what Russia has done now is the strongest catalyst it could have created to get Georgia in NATO,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told Ekho Moskvy radio.
NATO has frozen regular contacts with Russia but the West needs Russian help on a range of issues such as Iran and Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Melissa Akin and Aydar Buribaev in Moscow; Dmitry Solovyov in Java, Georgia and Matt Robinson in Tbilisi; Writing by Gareth Jones and Jon Boyle