WASHINGTON - Even as Russia pledged to begin withdrawing its forces from neighboring Georgia today, U.S. officials said the Russian military had been moving launchers for short-range ballistic missiles into South Ossetia, a step that appeared intended to tighten its hold on the breakaway territory.
The Russian military deployed several SS-21 missile launchers and supply vehicles to South Ossetia on Friday, according to U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports. From the new launching positions north of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, the missiles can reach much of Georgia, including Tbilisi, the capital.
The Kremlin announced yesterday that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had promised to begin the troop withdrawal in a conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who negotiated a six-point cease-fire agreement. Medvedev did not specify the pace or scope of the withdrawal, saying only that troops would withdraw to South Ossetia and a so-called security zone on its periphery.
The United States and European leaders reacted with wariness, and Russia's recent military moves appeared to add an element of frustration.
"Well, I just know that the Russian president said several days ago Russian military operations would stop. They didn't," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on NBC's Meet the Press. "This time I hope he means it. You know the word of the Russian president needs to be upheld by his forces."
Russia's efforts to strengthen its military position in the region have important political and military implications. U.S. officials have demanded that Russian troops pull back from their positions inside Georgia and that the Russian military presence in the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia be limited to the Russian peacekeeping force that was there before the conflict erupted earlier this month. Ultimately, U.S. officials say, the Russian peacekeepers themselves should be replaced by a neutral, international peacekeeping force.
But instead of thinning out their forces in South Ossetia, the Russians appear to have been consolidating their presence there by deploying SS-21 missile launchers and, U.S. officials say, by installing surface-to-air missiles near their military headquarters in Tskhinvali. Such moves appear to buttress assertions last week by Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are to be separated from Georgia.
Western officials have also been monitoring Russian troop movements, which might be intended to strengthen Russian forces in and around Georgia. A battalion from Russia's 76th Guards Airborne Division has been deployed from Pskov to Beslan, a city in North Ossetia. Several additional battalions from the 98th Guards Airborne Division at Kostroma also appeared to be preparing over the weekend for possible deployment to the Caucasus region.
Beyond South Ossetia, the Russian military has taken other steps to raise its profile. In recent days, several Bear-H bombers have carried out training missions over the Black Sea, according to U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports. The training flights are the first flights that a Bear bomber has flown over the Black Sea in at least two years, according to U.S. military experts. The Russian bombers are capable of carrying non-nuclear cruise missiles, and government intelligence analysts have told the Pentagon that a recent Bear training flight appeared to simulate a cruise-missile attack on Georgia.
The Russian moves are seen at the Pentagon as a way for Russia to show that it considers its sphere of influence to include Georgia and other parts of the so-called near abroad zones - Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus and the Caspian - near Russian territory. In general, the actions are seen as a matter of muscle flexing, or "force projection," in Pentagon parlance, and are not viewed as signs that Russia intends to make a major military push to take Tbilisi.
Russian officials might also be calculating that their nation's military presence in the area might make some NATO members more skeptical toward accepting Georgia into the alliance. While the United States has strongly supported Georgia's membership, some allied officials fear they might be dragged into a war in the Caucasus if Georgia is admitted.
Concerns over the military tensions in the region might already have influenced some neighbors. U.S. officials said Turkish officials had denied Washington's request that the Baltimore-based Navy hospital ship Comfort be allowed to travel through the Turkish straits en route to Georgia. A Bush administration official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomatic discussions, expressed hope that U.S. officials would eventually persuade the Turkish government to let the ship pass.