Cease-fire may not have halted Russian military

On the same day that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced he had signed a cease-fire with Georgia, his military reportedly blew up a key railroad bridge and continued to occupy fighting positions along the main road to the capital.

While President Bush said that Russia “needs to honor the agreement” – which calls for both sides to withdraw to the positions they held before war broke out Aug. 8 – the Russian forces gave little indication that they were leaving.

After pushing Georgia's military out of South Ossetia, the first battleground, the Russians moved further south last week to occupy Gori, just 40 miles outside Tbilisi, the capital. And from Gori the Russians stretched their lines about 15 miles more to Igoeti, toward Tbilisi, where their troops were staged just outside of town Saturday.

The Russians have made clear that despite the political demands of Washington, and treaties signed in Moscow, they are in control.

The Kremlin refers to its troops as “peacekeepers,” saying they are in place to ensure both that the Georgians do not move back into South Ossetia – which the Georgians tried to take before being bombarded by Russian jets – and that Ossetian militias do not exact revenge.

Georgian politicians say that's a cynical ploy by the Russians to ensure South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway province, stay under the sway of Moscow or achieve full independence. And perhaps, they worry, to control the entire nation's affairs in the same way the Soviet Union once did.

“There is no doubt that Russia right now, today, is an occupying power in Georgia,” said Lasha Zhvania, the chair of the Georgian parliament's foreign relations committee.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday that Russia would take “as much (time) as is needed” to pull out its military units.

As he was speaking, Russian armored fighting vehicles, tanks and troop transport trucks were staged along the side of the road between Gori and Igoeti.

The deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told reporters in Moscow that there were no troops in Gori. But a McClatchy journalist on Saturday saw dozens of military vehicles pouring out of the city.

The Russians denied destroying the railroad bridge, not far from Igoeti. The blast suspended Azeri rail transportation of crude oil across Georgia to Black Sea ports, according to Russian state media. The Georgian government provided pictures of the collapsed structure. Other recent Russian denials, such as saying Wednesday that tanks weren't in Gori, didn't match what was happening on the ground.

Standing outside of Gori, the head of Georgia's national security council said that the Russian generals he was negotiating with insisted they had to fortify their positions because of security threats.

“Which is complete nonsense,” said Alexander Lomaia, the security chief.

There were no Georgian military or police units to be seen. When reporters passed a group of Georgian soldiers about 20 miles down the road from Gori – all of whom had assault rifles in the face of Russian armor units moving in the area – one of them ran up to the car and asked if anyone could tell him how far away the Russians were.

A policeman, Maj. Malkhaz Khubulovi, said in a dejected voice that the Russian soldiers “just do whatever they want.”

“Will anyone help us?” he asked. “Will we survive?”

That sense of panic and despair is exactly what the Russian troops want, and explains why they have been staging late-night feints toward Tbilisi, said Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations.

“Their real goal here is to overthrow President (Mikheil) Saakashvili,” Holbrooke said, echoing a contention of the White House.

Saakashvili has enraged the Kremlin by pushing for Georgia's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.

As the display of Russian military might paraded down the road out of Gori, past wheat and corn fields, Georgians wondered what might happen next.

“They are occupying my country,” said Gogi Donguzashvili, who was with a group of villagers who had come out to get a look at the Russians. “When you drive to Tbilisi, you see Russians the whole way.”

Standing next a Russian armored personnel carrier, Rolandi Shemazashvili peered at the young men and their guns. He said “these guys are nice, everything is fine,” and then stepped out of the soldiers' earshot.

“I never thought I would see this,” Shemazashvili said. “I still cannot believe a foreign army is staying here.”

The Russian troops just smiled, as the big guns rolled by.