(RIA Novosti) - Russia's defense minister said Wednesday the withdrawal of two Soviet-era military bases from Georgia could be accelerated in the wake of an espionage scandal involving Russian officers last week.
The arrest of four Russian army officers on spying charges has evolved into the worst crisis in the two countries' relations in recent years even though the men were released Monday. Both countries have exchanged strong-worded accusations and Russia has suspended transport and postal links with Georgia, reports Trend.
Russia is set to withdraw from two Soviet-era bases by 2008 and has already shipped out hundreds of tons of hardware this year. And Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said during a visit to Kyrgyzstan that no measures would be taken to reinforce the bases.
"We will certainly not build up troops [in Georgia], we see no point in doing this," said Ivanov, who is also a deputy prime minister. "On the contrary, we will be withdrawing the two Russian bases from Georgian territory according to schedule or even ahead of it."
Ivanov said the faster withdrawal was possible given the latest developments in the South Caucasus state: "I think you understand how our soldiers and officers feel."
Under the 2006 agreement, Russia is to withdraw the base from the southern city of Akhalkalaki by October 1, 2007, but the deadline could be extended until December in the event of complications. The withdrawal from Batumi in the west of Georgia is to be completed by late 2008. Russia's military officials said they had been keeping to schedule in 2006.
Georgia, which has accused Moscow of interfering in internal affairs and encouraging its peacekeepers to support separatists in two breakaway regions, has demanded the withdrawal of the bases ahead of schedule.
After the espionage dispute broke out, Russia briefly suspended the pullout, but resumed it later although saying the bases remained on high alert.