"Russia will halt its military operation once the Georgians are pushed out of South Ossetia," the Russian Embassy's Chargé D’affaires in Tel Aviv, Dr. Anatoly Yurkov told Ynet on Monday afternoon.
"Russia has no interest in taking over South Ossetia – and certainly none in invading Georgia-proper," Yurkov said, adding that Russia had not prepared for a military conflict of any sort with Georgia, and was forcibly dragged into one.
"Georgia is the one that primed itself for war, we did not prepare in advance but had to get involved in this conflict to protect the Russian observers, who are spread out in the region under the 1999 agreement in order to watch over the local population and prevent genocide."
Yurkov stressed that 15 Russian observers were killed in the first hours of the clashes on Friday morning.
"Our observers were the first to come under attack. We had to protect them, and of course prevent a humanitarian disaster in South Ossetia, prevent a future genocide. You must remember that there are Ossetians living in Russia as well, we have a moral obligation towards them," he said.
"We didn't arm them. The South Ossentians armed themselves. It's very hard to control the arms smuggling into the region. While our observers do have a mandate to act in South Ossetia, but it is not unlimited power. Just as the UNIFIL force is unable to thwart the arms smuggling in southern Lebanon."
Yurkov says Russia is intent merely on restoring the situation to the status quo of August 6th. "We are only there to push the Georgian army out. We have no plans to annex South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Like the rest of the world, we do not recognize these two districts' declarations of independence. We want to see Georgia's territorial integrity preserved – and we have no intention of overthrowing President Mikheil Saakashvili."
If that is the case, then why did Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov demand the president be replaced?
"We are not demanding that he be replaced, we simply think he is ineligible. But we have no plans to take any action towards this end. Obviously we will not march into Tbilisi and forcibly overthrow him."
Yurkov denies Russia has used excessive force in Georgia. "I myself am not a military man. It is difficult for me to evaluate the extent of our response. But it is important to emphasize that we did not initiate this, we were dragged into it. Our airstrikes in Georgia have only targeted military bases and military targets, to avoid any further attacks on our troops."
President Saakashvili said today that 90 percent of the Georgian casualties are civilians.
"Our goal was not to harm civilians, and to the best of my knowledge, we only hit military installations. But like they say, war is war – and it could be that civilians were hurt, this also happens in Israel's military operations in Gaza, for example. Unfortunately, in ethnic conflicts there are no winners, only losers."
Yurkov said Russia has set two preconditions to the cessation of hostilities. "First, before we can begin negotiations, we demand Georgia's full withdrawal from South Ossetia. We demand Tbilisi commit on paper that it has no future intention to recapture the separatist districts."
As for the reinforcement of troops in Abkhazia, Yurkov said, the move was meant to aid Georgia. "The
Abkhazians understand that if Georgia invaded South Ossetia, they are next, and they announced that they would launch a military operation against the Georgian enclave of Kodori. Our increased presence there is designed to ensure the situation doesn't deteriorate there."
Yurkov added that Georgia "greatly appreciates" the statement released on Sunday by the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry on the crisis. "It was brief and to the point. In its principle points, there is no disparity between the Israeli position and Russia's in this conflict. We all want it to end, us more than others. After all, it is our soldiers who are being killed."