Putin Defies West's Calls Over Troops

Only Russia and the "states" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will decide how many troops Moscow can keep on their soil, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Saturday, signaling the Kremlin will do as it pleases in the separatist Georgian regions regardless of Western demands.

The statement was in frank defiance of calls by Georgia, the United States and the European Union for a withdrawal of most Russian troops from the breakaway territories, which only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized as independent nations.

Putin, speaking to reporters in Sochi with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, stressed that Russia would adhere to its promise to pull back from the strips of land surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia once EU monitors are deployed. Those areas are Georgian territory, he said.

But he said any "possible" Russian pullout from South Ossetia and Abkhazia themselves was a "separate issue," suggesting that Moscow's recognition of the separatist regions as independent nations has changed the rules.

"The question of the presence of our armed forces on these territories will be decided bilaterally, in the framework of international law and on the basis of agreements between Russia and these states," Putin said.

Putin said Russia has no intention of annexing any land, saying it was "solely a question of providing security in the region."

Putin suggested that by backing Kosovo's independence declaration in February, Western nations had ruined any argument against Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"It is not we who opened this Pandora's box," he said.

The remarks indicated that Russia would continue to ignore Western calls to pull nearly all its forces out of Georgia under a cease-fire deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The United States and European countries say Russia is violating its commitment to withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions. Russia has announced plans to maintain nearly 8,000 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, far more than in the months before the war.