Sarkozy Returning To Clarify Cease-Fire

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is visiting Moscow on Monday to urge President Dmitry Medvedev to pull Russian troops out of Georgian territory surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in accordance with a cease-fire agreement signed last month.

Medvedev meanwhile, took a defiant tone ahead of the meeting.

"We have reached the moment of truth. It became a different world after Aug. 8," he told a meeting of the State Council on Saturday. "Russia will never allow anyone to threaten the lives and dignity of its citizens. Russia is a nation to be reckoned with from now on."

The Russian troops remaining in Georgia proper have been the main point of contention, leading to the Western calls for their removal. Moscow has countered by saying the troops would not leave until replaced by European military observers.

The cease-fire plan that ended the five-day hostilities between Moscow and Tbilisi last month was brokered by Sarkozy, who holds the rotating European Union presidency. It calls for both sides to pull their forces back to their pre-conflict position but allows Russia to take unspecified "additional security measures" — a provision Moscow is using to justify its continued military presence in Georgia.

Sarkozy's visit could help outline a European contribution to security in those areas where Russian troops remain, Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov said Friday.

The talks will focus on the sections of the agreement concerning the role of the international community in providing security, Lyakin-Frolov said.

Sarkozy is being accompanied on the visit by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

He received public backing ahead of the visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said in a national radio broadcast that she was hopeful Sarkozy would make progress in clearing up the different interpretations of the six-point cease-fire agreement.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security and human rights watchdog, currently has 20 monitors stationed in Georgia and plans to approve an increase to that number at a two-day meeting starting Monday, said Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, the organization's chairman, Reuters reported.

A EU official said the union was prepared to deploy a separate task force of more than 200 observers to Georgia within a week if Sarkozy manages to clinch a deal with Medvedev on Monday, Reuters reported.

But Russia could declare the EU proposals insufficient and insist on a continued presence for its troops, said Sergei Mikheyev, a security analyst at the Center for Political Technologies.

"Russian decision-makers firmly believe that Tbilisi, being strongly backed by Washington, is capable of mounting a new military offensive against the separatist republics, at least for as long as Mikheil Saakashvili remains Georgian president," Mikheyev said. "So the military pullout will be very slow and gradual."

Russia repelled Georgian forces after they launched an assault to reclaim Georgia's separatist province of South Ossetia, where Russian peacekeepers were stationed. Riling the West, Russian troops then moved up to seven kilometers into Georgia proper and dug in there, in what Moscow says is an effort to create a buffer zone to prevent further hostilities.

Russia has also recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgian separatist regions that have enjoyed de facto independence since a civil war in the early 1990s, as independent states, adding more fuel to the flames of Western criticism.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said he doubted that Russia would let the EU monitors enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but added that, "They should deploy where they can deploy, and they should deploy fast."

European Union foreign ministers met Friday and Saturday in the French city of Avignon to discuss relations with Russia. There was no indication after the meeting of what steps the bloc might take if Sarkozy is unable to reach agreement with Medvedev, with the ministers saying everything depended on the outcome of Monday's talks.

The EU has been reluctant to impose sanctions against its largest energy supplier, but an unidentified EU diplomat said Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Poland had already called during the summit for punitive measures if there is no progress, Reuters reported. Some East and Central European states, including Lithuania, called at the meeting for sanctions against firms investing in the breakaway Georgian regions, the diplomat said.

Germany and Italy led calls for an inquiry into the outbreak of the conflict, a move that would likely appease Russia, which has accused the West of ignoring the initial Georgian assault as the trigger of the war.

Medvedev lashed out at Western criticism of Russia's military actions at the Saturday session of the advisory State Council, which consists largely of regional governors.

"Millions of people supported us, but we have heard no words of support and understanding from those who, under the same circumstances, pontificate about free elections and national dignity and the need to use force to punish an aggressor," he said.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on Saturday in Italy delivered an example of the comments that have angered Medvedev, calling Moscow's actions vis-a-vis Georgia "an affront to civilized standards," The Associated Press reported.

After Moscow, Sarkozy's next stop will be Tbilisi, where he will brief Saakashvili on the negotiations. Sarkozy is then due to attend an EU-Ukraine summit in Evian, France, on Tuesday.

At the meeting, the EU is expected to offer Ukraine an "association agreement," a type of accord that can help prepare a country for, but does not guarantee, eventual EU membership, Reuters reported.

The Georgian conflict has sparked calls from some EU countries for the bloc to deepen ties with Ukraine, a country which French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said might be next in Moscow's crosshairs after Georgia.