U.S. Rebukes Russia for Failing to Withdraw Troops From Georgia and Moldova

Wade Boese

The United States is strongly criticizing Russia for failing to live up to past pledges to withdraw its armed forces from Georgia and Moldova. (See ACT, December 2003.)

Secretary of State Colin Powell Dec. 2 expressed regret that Moscow would not complete a total military withdrawal from Moldova by the end of 2003 nor finalize a timetable for vacating Russian-occupied bases in Georgia.

Speaking at a foreign ministers meeting of the 55-member Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Powell urged Russia to undertake the “earliest possible fulfillment” of these actions.

Although other OSCE members backed the U.S. position, Russia remained defiant. It refused to reaffirm its withdrawal commitments, which Moscow first made in November 1999 at an OSCE summit in Istanbul.

Because the OSCE operates by consensus, the meeting ended without a final statement. However, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who served as chairman of the meeting, stated that “most ministers” support Russia’s withdrawal from Moldova “without further delay” and urged the “speedy conclusion of negotiations” on Russia’s continuing presence in Georgia.

Georgia and Moldova expressed displeasure at the meeting’s outcome. Georgia described itself as “deeply disappointed” that no agreed statement could be reached regarding its situation, while Moldova called for the “complete and unconditional withdrawal” of Russian forces from its territory.

Russia is making progress in its withdrawal from Moldova, which was initially supposed to be completed by the end of 2002. Russian and OSCE officials estimate that the ongoing task could be finished within seven to eight months if uninterrupted.

Similar optimism had existed in the first half of 2003. But separatists in the Transdniestria region of Moldova, where the Russian forces are located, blocked shipments of arms and ammunition from leaving the region. Although the separatists, who want financial compensation for Russia’s departure, briefly allowed the withdrawal to resume, theyreneged at the end of the year.

In Georgia, Russia continues officially to control two military bases; its forces occupy a third. The two countries remain divided over how long Russian troops should be allowed to remain. Moscow wants them to stay for at least 11 more years, while Tbilisi says three years are enough.

Reinforcing Powell’s OSCE message, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled Dec. 5 to Georgia, where he described Russia’s future withdrawal as a “pretty good idea.” Rumsfeld’s visit was seemingly designed to signal Russia not to try and take advantage of the shifting political scene in Georgia following the Nov. 23 resignation of longtime President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov replied coolly to Rumsfeld’s remarks the next day, saying, “We are disposed to work constructively so as to find mutually acceptable solutions.”

Until Russia fulfills its withdrawal commitments, the United States and its NATO allies are refusing to ratify the 1999 adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. The accord is an updated version of an existing treaty that limits the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters deployed in Europe by 30 countries, including the United States and Russia.

The Kremlin wants the revised accord to enter into force soon so Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania can accede to it before officially joining NATO. The 19-member alliance invited the three countries, along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, to become members in November 2002; and NATO expects the process will be completed by its upcoming June 2004 summit in Istanbul. (See ACT, June 2003.) None of the three Baltic countries currently have arms limits, leading Moscow to suggest NATO could stockpile huge amounts of weaponry along Russia’s western border.

At the OSCE meeting, Ivanov charged that the treaty’s ratification was being held up by “artificial pretexts.” He added, “If we do not take serious and timely measures, the gap between the system of arms control and the actual politico-military situation in Europe may become unbridgeable.”

Despite the mutual recriminations of foot-dragging, the OSCE meeting was not marked by total discord. The 55 members issued a handbook of voluntary best practices for countries to control the illegal trade in small arms, endorsed a process by which countries can request assistance to destroy excess ammunition stockpiles, and called upon countries to improve export controls of shoulder-fired missiles. None of the measures were legally binding.