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Russia to Build Military Base in Breakaway Georgian Region of Abkhazia of Georgia

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 13, 2009

MOSCOW, Aug. 12 -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin traveled to the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia on Wednesday and pledged to strengthen Russia's military presence there, defying U.S. and European objections amid simmering tensions in the region.

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Speaking on the anniversary of his nation's victory over Georgia in a five-day war last year, Putin said the Kremlin planned to spend nearly $500 million to build a base in the separatist enclave and reinforce its de facto border with Georgia.

"It won't be a Maginot line," Putin said, referring to the fortifications France built against Germany before World War II.

His remarks and appearance in Abkhazia underscored Russia's growing foothold in what once was Georgian territory and highlighted the sharp differences that remain between Moscow and Washington despite the Obama administration's efforts to "reset" bilateral relations.

U.S. and European officials have called on Russia to comply with the cease-fire agreement that ended the war and withdraw its troops to prewar positions and levels. But Russia says it is no longer bound by those promises because it recognized Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, as independent states after the war.

It is unclear how many Russian soldiers remain in the disputed territories, where Moscow has stationed troops since the post-Soviet conflicts of the 1990s. But the military said in June that plans to double its prewar presence to nearly 7,500 troops had been scaled back. Instead, officials said more Russian border guards would be deployed.

Russian forces are stationed at two bases, one in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and the other in Gudauta, a town on the Black Sea coast in western Abkhazia. The Gudauta base was built during the Soviet era and is considered a strategic asset because it boasts one of the largest military airfields in the Caucasus.

Russia and Abkhazia have been haggling over Gudauta for months, with the Abkhaz seeking to get more from Russia in return for use of the base. It was not clear whether Putin had succeeded in breaking a deadlock in talks over a formal treaty on the subject.

Some Abkhaz are said to be wary of growing too dependent on Russia, but the authorities greeted Putin warmly as he arrived by helicopter in the local capital of Sukhumi. The visit came a month after U.S. and European officials criticized Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for making a similar appearance in South Ossetia.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement denouncing Putin's visit, calling it "yet another provocation carried out quite in the tradition of Soviet special services."

In an interview with Abkhaz reporters broadcast in Russia, Putin chastised the West for condemning the Russian invasion of Georgia, which he has long argued was required to protect South Ossetia from a Georgian attack.

"That's not even double standards, not even triple standards. It's a complete lack of any standards," he said, accusing the United States of pressuring countries to continue supporting Georgia's claim to the territories.

Asked about the possibility of another war, Putin replied: "Given the Georgian leadership today, nothing can be ruled out, but it will be much harder for them to do it."

The Obama administration has repeatedly endorsed Georgia's territorial integrity, and only Nicaragua has joined Russia in recognizing the sovereignty of the separatist regions.

Special correspondent Sarah Marcus in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report.


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