Russia: Forget About Georgia's Old Borders

A South Ossetian man looks at destroyed OSCE observers' car in downtown Tskhinvali, capital of the separatist Georgian region, Aug. 13, 2008, where Russian and Georgian forces fought a brutal five-day battle.
AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev
Russia's foreign minister said the question surrounding Georgia's borders with two breakaway regions was a dead issue, a clear sign that Moscow was giving its full support to separatist provinces in the wake of recent fighting.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the statement Thursday simultaneously with the announcement that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was meeting in the Kremlin with the separatist regions' leaders.

"One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," Lavrov told reporters.

The White House, however, dismissed Lavrov's remarks as "bluster" and said U.S. officials will not pay any attention to it.

Meanwhile, there were rapidly changing reports from Georgian officials Thursday over the movements of Russian troops in the strategic Georgian city of Gori, and Russian artillery fire resumed.

Hours after the Interior Ministry said Russian forces were withdrawing from the city, the Foreign Ministry came out with a statement that more Russian troops were entering both that city and the vital coastal town of Poti.

CBS News reporter Phil Ittner was stopped by Russian troops at a checkpoint Thursday as he tried to enter Gori, a strategic Georgian city just 15 miles south of the South Ossetian border. As he waited at the checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, he witnessed a tense standoff between the Russians and a group of Georgian forces.

Ittner said there were reports from inside Gori earlier that an agreement had been reached for the Russian forces to hand over control of the city to Georgian police within a day. South Ossetian fighters reportedly rejected the agreement, claiming the right to police the separatist region themselves.

The impasse led to the talk's collapse and the Georgian negotiating team's withdrawal from Gori, reported Ittner. It was at roughly this stage that the Georgian forces showed up at the Russian checkpoint, approximately 1.5 miles outside Gori, saying they had come in peace to help restore order inside the city.

According to Ittner, "the Russian troops drew their weapons, the Georgians responded in kind," and the Georgians were forced to retreat about 100 yards, where they waited in a tense state of calm.

Ittner said he then witnessed a number of what appeared to be South Ossetian irregular forces, "under the noses of the Russians," approach a group of international journalists near the checkpoint and demand they hand over their car keys and equipment.

As Ittner spoke to from the roadside, he saw artillery fire from inside Gori start to "rain down" on Georgian positions surrounding the city.

There were also independent reports Thursday that Russian tanks were moving into Poti, a Black Sea port city with an oil terminal that is a key part of Georgia's fragile economic health.

A Russian military convoy initially rolled through Gori on Wednesday and Georgian officials claimed there was looting and bombing by Russians and their allies.

"What the Russians want is control over Georgia," reported CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan. "Having a pro-Western, pro-American leader who has been antagonistic toward the Russians, that doesn't suit them at all."

"This is, of course, about access to oil," added Logan. "The Caspian Sea is right on (Georgia's) border. The oil comes across over Georgia to the Black Sea - that goes to the U.S., to Europe. And having control over that is absolutely crucial in this case."

A massive U.S. aid package for tens of thousands uprooted in the conflict arrived Thursday after President Bush demanded Russia "keep its word and act to end this crisis" in the former Soviet republic.

The entry into Gori came hours after both sides signed a cease-fire agreement that called for their forces to be pulled back to the positions they held before the fighting started a week ago.

Gori is about 15 miles south of South Ossetia, the separatist Georgian region where Russian and Georgian forces fought a brutal five-day battle after Georgia launched a surprise operation to firmly bring the area under its control on Aug. 7.

Russian officials have consistently denied violating the cease-fire agreement, reported CBS News reporter Beth Knobel in Moscow.

Lavrov admitted Wednesday night that Russians troops had moved forward since the ceasefire, reported Knobel, but claimed they advanced only because they had to disarm weapons left behind by the Georgians.

International pressure mounted steadily on Russia late Wednesday to honor the pledges it made in the French-brokered cease-fire agreement Tuesday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, headed for emergency meetings on the crisis in Europe and in the Georgian capital, said Russia's now-weeklong military action in Georgia is a throwback to darker Cold War times.

"The message is that Russia has perhaps not accepted that it is time to move on from the Cold War and it is time to move to a new era in which relations between states are on the basis of equality, and sovereignty and economic integration," Rice said Wednesday.

The Russians, said Knobel, have become increasingly frustrated with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and with the Bush administration which continues to back him.

Lavrov said the United States has to choose - either partner with Russia on issues that really matter to the world, or stick with Georgia, which he called a "special project of the United States."

Though the Russians beat Georgia definitively on the battlefield, Knobel said their military moves, prior to Thursday's reported withdrawals, made Moscow's position look worse and worse in the international battle for public opinion.

"What is clear is that the complete Russian victory in this small but nasty war has created a new reality on the ground," reported CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips, "not just in Georgia, but in relations between Russia and the West."