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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Aug 18, 2008

180808.jpgTODAY: Kremlin slow to withdraw troops, increasing numbers in South Ossetia; Nato ministers torn over Russia; minister threatens Poland with nuclear strike over US missile defense; Germany presses for artwork to be returned. Nato ministers are having trouble agreeing on Russia, with a tough approach from the US and Britain on one side, and Germany and France, which are urging a more cautious stance on the other. “I don’t know how they are going to isolate us,” commented Sergei Lavrov last week. “My understanding is that each country is supporting Georgia for its own ends and really doesn’t care about Georgia’s population.” “Everyone is to blame.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy writes in the Washington Post today, underlining the importance of a Russian troop withdrawal and promising “grave consequences” if Russia ignored the terms of the ceasefire, which will give the Russian Army the right to patrol in South Ossetia. The Kremlin has announced that Russia will start pulling back today, but has not given a specific time, and many reports indicate that Russia has moved short-range ballistic missiles into South Ossetia and increased military presence in Gori. The BBC has compiled a day-by-day register of the conflict. Georgia’s interior ministry has accused Russia of deliberately starting a fire that threatens to destroy a forest regarded as a national treasure. Georgia says its main east-west train link has been severed. Some human rights activists on the ground said that they were struggling to find even 100 slain Ossetians, according to the Moscow Times.

Russia is considering arming its Baltic fleet with nuclear warheads for the first time since the cold war, in response to Poland’s missile defense agreement with the US. Ukraine fears that Russia is stoking separatist sentiment in the Crimea following reports that it is distributing passports in two provinces there. Ukraine has offered to create a joint missile defense network with the West. Russia has sent “ripples of alarm throughout the former Soviet Union”, which reportedly fears that “Moscow is once again hungry for conquest”.Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Russia has expressed interest in sending a naval fleet to the Caribbean, and called Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili a ”puppet” of Washington. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in Russia and Georgia over the weekend for a “delicate diplomatic challenge”. The leader of South Ossetia has fired his government and declared a month-long emergency. British foreign secretary David Miliband will travel to Georgia later this week.Germany has been pressuring Russia for the return of art looted at the end of World War II, and will stage exhibitions of the work that has already been returned.PHOTO: During the Russian operation following the start of fighting, the main railway link between eastern and western Georgia, near the town of Kaspi has been destroyed (Reuters)