MEIENDORF CASTLE, Russia – (Reuters) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Russia on Monday to seek a lasting peace deal for Georgia that will persuade Russia to pull its troops out of positions deep inside the ex-Soviet state.
Russia drew Western condemnation when it fought a brief war with Georgia last month, sending tanks and troops deep into its neighbor’s territory to defeat a Georgian attempt to retake its breakaway South Ossetia region by force.
Tensions between Russia and the United States over Georgia flared again at the weekend, with the Kremlin attacking the presence of NATO warships in the Black Sea and U.S. foe Venezuela saying it planned joint naval exercises with Russia later this year in the Caribbean Sea.
Sarkozy arrived in Moscow four weeks after he brokered a ceasefire ending the war, the Russians’ first involvement in combat abroad since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But a dispute remains over the presence of Russian troops in buffer zones around South Ossetia and the second separatist region of Abkhazia. The Kremlin says they are legitimate peacekeepers, while the West calls them occupiers.
The European Union has warned it will suspend talks on a new partnership pact unless Moscow pulls back its forces. But the 27-member bloc has limited scope for influencing the Kremlin because it depends on Russia for its energy supplies.
“The aim is clear: as big a deployment as possible so the Russians can leave as quickly as possible,” one French official told reporters at a weekend EU foreign ministers meeting.
Russia said it was morally obliged to attack Georgia to prevent what it called a genocide in South Ossetia by Georgian troops, and says it is in full compliance with the ceasefire.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has since defied the West by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, is accompanied by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. They will all meet Medvedev at Meiendorf Castle outside Moscow.
The two sides are expected to discuss deployment of an international peacekeeping force. Moscow says it will pull out once an effective international security structure is in place.
There were conflicting signals over the weekend about whether Russia was ready to comply with the EU’s demands.
In a sign of increased Russian cooperation, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said its team of around 20 observers was now able to circulate freely in Georgia.
But Georgia said Russian forces were re-enforcing their positions in one buffer zone, near the strategic Black Sea port of Poti. Reuters was not able to immediately verify the report.
In the Hague, the International Court of Justice began hearing Georgian accusations that Russia violated the human rights of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The United States Navy has sent warships to Georgia’s Black Sea coast, saying they are delivering humanitarian aid. Russia has said their presence raises the danger of confrontation.
A Venezuelan newspaper quoted a senior naval official as saying several Russian ships and 1,000 soldiers will take part in joint naval exercises in the Caribbean Sea later this year.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is an outspoken critic of Washington and has forged close ties with Moscow.
“Without doubt these exercises were agreed in advance. However, the cooling in Russian-American relations lends them an additional piquancy,” Russian military analyst Ruslan Pukhov told the Ekho Mosvky radio station.