Russia-Georgia conflict raises Black Sea tensions

A005565510.jpgMOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will face increased Western pressure on Wednesday when a senior British official flies to Ukraine to build a coalition to counter Russia’s conflict with ex-Soviet Georgia.

The United States, NATO and European powers condemned as unacceptable Russia’s recognition on Tuesday of two breakaway Georgian regions as independent states, and demanded Moscow recognize Georgia’s territorial integrity.

U.S. President George W. Bush condemned Moscow’s decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying they must remain part of Georgia.

“Russia’s action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations,” Bush said in a statement from his Texas ranch.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tbilisi’s desire to seize back Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force had killed all hopes for their peaceful co-existence in one state with Georgia.

Russian tanks and troops continue to occupy parts of Georgia after crushing Tbilisi’s bid to retake South Ossetia — the first time Moscow has sent troops into another country since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

EU president France earlier this month brokered a ceasefire in the conflict and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would talk to Russia’s leadership before Monday’s emergency EU summit on the crisis to get the bloc’s viewpoint across.

“I think each and every member state is very clear … that it is of the utmost importance to find a common position, and I am going to do whatever I can so that we succeed,” she said.


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose attempt this month to retake South Ossetia sparked the war with Russia, said the fate of the free world was being played out in his country.

“The Russian Federation’s actions are an attempt to militarily annex a sovereign nation — the nation of Georgia,” he said in a statement. “This a challenge to the entire world. Not just Georgia.”

In an interview later with Reuters, he said: “The point here is the Russians are bluffing and they’re overplaying their hand.”

But he added that Europe was in “mortal danger” from its reliance on Russian energy and Georgia could further develop its role as a transit state to help reduce that dependence.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was due in Kiev to meet the leadership of Ukraine, home to a large Russian-speaking population and a major Russian naval base.

“I am holding talks today with international partners and will be visiting Ukraine … to ensure the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia,” Miliband said on Tuesday.

Ukraine, like Georgia, has angered Moscow by actively seeking membership of NATO.

But divisions within the pro-Western camp there may complicate Miliband’s mission.

President Viktor Yushchenko believes Ukraine should enter NATO and the European Union but Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has grown cool towards NATO membership, which is unpopular with voters.

The West could exclude Russia from some top world bodies but its ability to punish Moscow is limited given Russia’s veto in the U.N. Security Council. The West also needs Moscow’s support over Iran’s nuclear program and supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The United States appeared to pull back from the prospect of an immediate confrontation with Russia, cancelling the delivery of relief supplies by U.S. warships to Poti, a busy Georgia cargo port still patrolled by Russian forces.

Kremlin chief Medvedev said he did not want a new Cold War with the West but was not scared of one. And he told Europe, a major consumer of Russian oil and gas, that it had to decide what sort of ties it wanted with Moscow.

“The ball is in the Europeans’ court. If they want a worsening in relations, they will get it of course,” he told France’s LCI television. “If they want to maintain strategic relations, which is in my opinion totally in the interests of Russia and Europe, everything will go well.”

Europe and Russia are major trading partners and the conflict has rattled financial markets as well as raising concerns over the stability of a key oil and gas transit route from the Caspian Sea.

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