NATO irked by Russia’s reported Georgian base plan

BRUSSELS  – NATO countries expressed concern Wednesday about reports that Russia plans to set up bases in Russian-backed breakaway territories in Georgia, a NATO spokesman said.

Representatives of the 26 NATO states discussed the issue on Wednesday and alliance Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will raise it with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov in February, spokesman James Appathurai said.

“NATO allies have made their position clear on Georgia’s territorial integrity and that includes all of Georgia’s recognized borders,” he said.

“They have seen the press reports suggesting Russia might build bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and they view them with concern.”

Russia sent troops and tanks into Georgia last August and pushed back Georgian troops who had tried to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Moscow region that broke away from the central government in the early 1990s.

Russia then further angered the United States and Europe by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region, as independent states and establishing a permanent military presence in both regions.

Russian media reported Monday that Russia would start building a naval base this year in Georgia’s Black Sea separatist region of Abkhazia, a step Tbilisi said would violate its sovereignty.

Such a move would add to Western concerns that Moscow is flexing its military muscles, including by moving forces back into areas they vacated after the collapse of Soviet rule.

The report of plans for a base came on the day that NATO decided in Brussels to restore formal contacts with Russia that the military alliance froze to signal its anger over last year’s war with formerly Soviet Georgia.

Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted an unnamed official at Russian naval headquarters as saying commanders planned to station vessels at the Abkhaz port of Ochamchire.

The Russian navy has one operational base abroad, in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. Ukraine’s government — which like Georgia’s leaders is seeking NATO membership — has said it will not renew the lease on the base when it runs out in 2017.

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