MOSCOW 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 U.S. 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.
Thumbing its nose at Georgia and the U.S., South Ossetia rolled what Russian media said were captured American-made Jeeps and Georgian tanks through the streets of its capital in an Independence Day military parade.
The developments underscored the reality taking shape in the wake of last month's war.
Putin stressed that Russia will adhere to its promise to pull back from the strips of land surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia once European Union 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 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 told a news conference in the seaside resort of Sochi with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
The remarks indicate Russia will 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 to end the five-day war that erupted last month in South Ossetia.
The U.S. 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.
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.
In the war-battered South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, residents lined streets to watch South Ossetian soldiers and military vehicles roll by, behind what state-run Russian media said were Georgian tanks, armor and military vehicles booty grabbed as Georgian forces retreated.
Russia's First Channel showed what it said were American-made military Jeeps and an armored vehicle.
In an evocation of a World War II victory parade on Moscow's Red Square, Georgian flags were thrown to the ground in front of a podium on the central square.
Amid increasing Russian support and mounting exchanges of fire, Georgian forces launched a large-scale offensive targeting Tskhinvali on Aug. 7. Russian forces repelled the attack and drove deep into Georgia.
South Ossetia broke from Georgian government control in a war in the 1990s, but its independence claims were not acknowledged by any nation until Russia's recognition last month.
"For 18 years the people of South Ossetia, day after day, have been declaring and proving their right to an equal place among other nations of the world," South Ossetia's leader, Eduard Kokoity, told the crowd in remarks broadcast on state-run Russian television.
The conflict has dimmed Georgia's hopes of regaining control over the separatist regions. Russia's persistent military presence has also raised questions about whether ethnic Georgians driven from their homes in the separatist regions will ever be able to return.
Western countries are also concerned about the fate of ethnic Georgians remaining in South Ossetia. Displaced Georgians have said Russian forces nominally peacekeepers did little to protect them from armed South Ossetians.
After the recent removal of a nearby Russian checkpoint, a group of South Ossetians entered the ethnic Georgian village of Dvani near Tskhinvali, looted several houses, stole cars and told the villagers to leave, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Saturday.
South Ossetian officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Russia's invasion of Georgia put the West on notice that it will be assertive in regions near its borders.
Amid deeply sour relations with the U.S. and Europe, Russian newscasts Saturday also showed President Dmitry Medvedev announcing plans for a major monthlong military exercise beginning Monday in collaboration with Belarus, a small ally sandwiched between Russia and NATO member Poland.