Russia began moving hundreds of soldiers and scores of tanks and other armored vehicles away from positions around the central Georgian town of Gori on Friday.
The Russian Defense Ministry says it has fulfilled its obligations to withdraw its forces nearly a week after the Russian president signed a French-mediated cease-fire agreement with Georgia. But the U.S. insists the Russian withdrawal is still not complete.
Russian military commanders in Georgia, as well as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, have made repeated pledges that Russian troops will withdraw from Georgian territory. Yet over the past week, the Russians have missed their own departure deadlines several times. As recently as Thursday, Russian soldiers were digging fresh trenches around their positions, while also sending army patrols deeper and deeper into Georgian territory.
Then suddenly on Friday afternoon, there was a flurry of activity at a Russian checkpoint near the Georgian village of Igoeti.
The Russian soldiers at a military checkpoint, 20 miles west of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, packed up their gear and piled up on top of six Russian tanks. They pulled out of their dug-in positions on the side of the highway, got on the road and prepared to leave. A Russian officer who was asked where they were going said home — with a big smile on his face.
At least 50 tanks, trucks and armored-personnel carriers rolled down the highway in the direction of Russia. Five soldiers had to make part of the journey on foot, slinging their guns over their shoulders and carrying their blankets and bread in plastic bags.
A soldier named Alan called the Russian presence in Georgia a holiday. He said the Georgian army was a joke.
Not far behind the column of departing Russian vehicles followed a convoy of at least 15 pickup trucks loaded with Georgian police officers, some of them holding Georgian flags.
"The Russians are going," one Georgian policeman said. But he may have spoken too soon.
Ten miles east of Gori, which the Russians have occupied for more than a week, a Russian checkpoint had yet to be dismantled. When Georgian police officers approached it on foot, a Russian soldier blocked their way.
A Georgian officer asked if he was leaving. Not yet, the Russian soldier replied, adding he had orders not to let them pass.
The Russian army invaded Georgia after the Georgian government tried, and failed, to recapture the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force. Since then, Russian troops have systematically dismantled and destroyed the bases of the Georgian military, which has received extensive training and equipment from the United States.
This week, the Russian Defense Ministry unveiled maps of a proposed buffer zone around South Ossetia with Russian army outposts up to 10 miles into Georgian territory.
"Those buffer zones are completely illegal," said Nick Rurua, a Georgian lawmaker who serves on a parliamentary defense committee. He said the proposed buffer zone violates the cease-fire agreement that was negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"They have no legal basis whatsoever," he said. "Those buffer zones are complete creatures of the Russian federation's general staff. This is an attempt by Russia to legalize its occupation somehow."
The Russians are using a loophole in the cease-fire agreement, which says Moscow may conduct, "additional security measures" in Georgia.
On Friday, Russian troops were digging into defensive positions around Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti.
A confrontation on the Black Sea may be looming. A U.S. destroyer and a Coast Guard cutter loaded with humanitarian supplies are now steaming toward Georgia. Since the conflict erupted two weeks ago, Russian warships have imposed a partial blockade of the Georgian coast.