TBILISI, Georgia – The commander of Russian military forces in Georgia said Sunday his troops had been put on high alert and ordered to use lethal force to defend their bases as tensions mount after the arrest of four Russian military officers accused of spying.
Vladimir Putin denounced the Georgian authorities’ arrests as “state terrorism” and blamed unidentified foreign nations for the crisis.
But he ordered the Defense Ministry to continue the pullout of Russian troops from the former Soviet republic in line with earlier agreements in an apparent bid to avoid any foreign criticism. The move came a day after a Russian general said the withdrawal of troops would be suspended.
Some Russian lawmakers accused the U.S. of instigating the arrests.
Gen. Andrei Popov said Russian law authorizes the military to use force to defend their bases abroad from aggression. “We are ready to thwart any possible attempts to penetrate our facilities using all means, including shoot to kill,” he told reporters.
Moscow, infuriated by Wednesday’s arrest of four Russian officers, recalled its ambassador, evacuated its citizens and denounced Georgia as a “bandit” state.
Ties between Tbilisi and Moscow were already strained by Georgia’s bid to join
NATO and allegations that Russia was backing two Georgian separatist provinces. Moscow denies that claim.
Along with some 2,500 peacekeepers in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has between 3,000 and 4,000 troops at two military bases in Georgia that it pledged to close by the end of 2008 under a deal signed last year.
Gen. Alexander Baranov, the commander of the North Caucasus military district, told reporters Saturday in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don that Moscow was halting plans for withdrawals, and blamed the suspension on the Georgians. But Putin said the pullout would continue.
The troops withdrawal agreement has not been ratified yet by the Russian parliament. Gennady Gudkov, a top member of the Kremlin-guided United Russia faction that dominates the lower house, told NTV television Sunday that the arrests further reduced chances for its ratification.
Georgia’s Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili accused Russia of trying to punish Georgia for its independent course and reaffirmed that Georgia wants Russia to end its involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia has played an official mediation role and deployed its peacekeepers to both regions, which have had de facto independence without international recognition since breaking away from Georgia in bloody wars in the early 1990s.
“Russia’s open support for separatists clearly shows that Russia isn’t a neutral mediator,” Bezhuashvili said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has charged that the arrests of the Russians on Wednesday were aimed at pushing Russian troops out of Georgia so the government could seize control of the separatist provinces by force.
Russia’s long-tense relations with Georgia have worsened since Saakashvili came to power following Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, pledging to move the country out of Russia’s orbit, bring breakaway provinces back into fold and join NATO in 2008.