Russia positioned itself yesterday as the unequivocal victor in its brief war with Georgia, with its Foreign Minister stating that the world could "forget about" Georgian control of two separatist enclaves.
The Kremlin and the Bush administration stepped up the rhetoric as the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, stopped in France to meet Nicolas Sarkozy on her way to Tbilisi. The French President brokered a fragile ceasefire between Russia and Georgia earlier in the week.
Speaking after President George Bush insisted on the respect of Georgian territorial integrity, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, rejected any such talk. President Dmitry Medvedev drove home the message by meeting in the Kremlin with the two separatist leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, said: "If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the US-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come."
As Russian troops slowly withdrew from deep inside the former Soviet republic, there were reports that they were destroying airfields and military installations as they went, further crippling the Georgian army, which, despite its US training, has been battered and demoralised.
As Georgian troops moved out of Tbilisi back towards Gori, which they had abandoned on Tuesday, the Russian army said it would take at least two days to leave the city, having earlier denied being there at all. Russian troops also destroyed military vessels in Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti. The aim, said analysts, was to prevent Georgia from renewing military hostilities in its breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the medium-term future.
Violence has continued inside South Ossetia, with reports that Georgian villages are being looted and burnt to ensure their residents can never return. Fears were growing yesterday that the French-brokered peace plan was unravelling because of vague language that allowed Russian forces to take care of "additional security measures" in Georgia. French and British diplomats have begun work on a draft resolution to put the plan before the United Nations Security Council.
Meanwhile, two planes carrying humanitarian aid from the US arrived in Tbilisi yesterday in a symbolic gesture meant to show American support for Georgia. In reality, Washington has done everything possible to avoid getting involved in the conflict and the claim by the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, that the American mission to Georgia would involve defending the country's ports and airports was swiftly shot down by American officials. Mr Gates acknowledged that Washington would not use military force.
Most analysts doubt that the Russians ever had plans to launch a land assault on the Georgian capital, but according to those close to the Georgian government, there was a genuine belief in Tbilisi that a full-scale invasion was planned.
"When Bush made his speech promising humanitarian aid, everybody started whooping, cheering, high-fiving," said one government adviser, who had been at the country's National Security Council at the time. "They realised that this would really spook the Russians." The Georgians got another boost as Mr Saakashvili welcomed a group of 50 Estonian military volunteers.
In Moscow, Russian politicians and analysts were furious about what they saw as hypocrisy from the West. "Have you all forgotten about Iraq?" asked Sergei Markedonov, a Moscow-based analyst of the Caucasus. "Georgia was part of Russia for 200 years... and what Saakashvili was doing in South Ossetia threatened the stability of the whole north Caucasus."
*Poland reached an agreement with the US yesterday to place a battery of American missiles inside Poland. Russia has objected to the deal in which the US will place 10 missile defence interceptors in the country while augmenting Poland's defences with Patriot missiles.Reuse content