Russia formally recognized the breakaway Georgian territories at the heart of its war with Georgia today, heightening tensions with the West as the United States dispatched a military ship bearing aid to a port city still patrolled by Russian troops.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Georgia forced Russia's hand by launching an attack targeting South Ossetia on Aug. 7 in an apparent bid to seize control of the breakaway region.
In response, Russian tanks and troops drove deep into the U.S. ally's territory in a five-day war that Moscow saw as a justified response to a military threat in its backyard and the West viewed as a repeat of Soviet-style intervention in its vassal states.
"This is not an easy choice but this is the only chance to save people's lives," Medvedev said today in a televised address a day after Russia's Kremlin-controlled parliament voted unanimously to support the diplomatic recognition.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the decision to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions in Georgia is "extremely unfortunate."
She said the U.S. regards Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "part of the internationally recognized borders of Georgia" and will use its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block any Russian attempt change their status.
Britain, Germany and France also criticized the decision.
Russian forces have staked out positions beyond the de-facto borders of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two territories have effectively ruled themselves following wars in the 1990s.
While Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of an EU-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general countered today that using warships to deliver aid was "devilish."
"The heightened activity of NATO ships in the Black Sea perplexes us," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in Moscow. The United States says its ships are carrying humanitarian aid but suspicion persists in Russia that they are delivering military materiel clandestinely.
Many of the Russian forces have pulled back from their positions in Georgia, but hundreds at least are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones."
Two of those checkpoints are near the edge of Poti, one of Georgia's most important Black Sea ports &
one by a bridge that provides the only access to Poti. The Russian military is also claiming the right to patrol in the city.
An AP cameraman was treated roughly by Russian troops Sunday when he tried to film Russian movements around Poti. Other AP journalists have reported on Russian looting in the city. Georgian officials have said much of the port's infrastructure &
radar, Coast Guard ships, other equipment &
was destroyed by the Russians.
Angering Russia, the United States sent the missile destroyer USS McFaul to the southern Georgian port of Batumi, well away from the conflict zone, to deliver 34 tons of humanitarian aid on Sunday.
The McFaul left Batumi today but would remain in the Black Sea area, said Commander Scott Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas, meanwhile, was headed for Georgia with a shipment of aid.
Embassy spokesman Stephen Guice did not give details on which ship would aim to enter Poti, but it appeared likely the smaller Coast Guard ship would aim to dock, with the McFaul possibly remaining on guard at sea.
"We can confirm that U.S. ship-borne humanitarian aid will be delivered to Poti tomorrow," Guice said.
In Moscow, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff lashed out at the U.S. naval operation.
"We are worried" about aid being delivered on warships, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said. "This is devilish."
"This aid could be bought at any flea market," he added.
While he did not link it with the U.S. ships, Nogovitsyn said a unit of Russian naval ships was off Sukhumi &
the capital of another separatist Georgian region, Abkhazia, on the Black Sea north of Poti. He said the ships were observing the pullout of Russian troops from Georgia.
Nogovitsyn told reporters that 10 ships from NATO nations were currently in the Black Sea and that eight more are to join them soon.
"They have very serious arsenal on their ships," Nogovitsyn said. "The Black Sea is just a small pool for their arms with the range of 2,500 kilometers."
The Georgian defense ministry said a Russian large landing ship, the Yamal, was seen in the Black Sea off Poti today morning and another was in the sea farther north off Abkhazia, which is also under the control of Russian troops.
The United States and other Western countries have given substantial military aid to Georgia, angering Russia, which regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence. Russia has also complained bitterly about aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.
Medvedev said Georgian Presdent Mikhail Saakshvili was so bent on ganiang control of South Ossetia that he resorted to "genocide."
"Georgia chose the least human way to achieve its goal &
to absorb South Ossetia by eliminating a whole nation," Medvedev said.
Russia's military presence seems likely to further weaken Georgia, a Western ally in the Caucasus region, a major transit corridor for energy supplies to Europe and a strategic crossroads close to the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and energy-rich Central Asia.
After Russia's parliament urged recognition of the breakaway territories on Monday, the U.S. State Department said recognition would be "unacceptable" and President Bush urged the Kremlin against it.
"Georgia's territorial integrity and borders must command the same respect as every other nation's, including Russia's," Bush, who is sending Vice President Dick Cheney on a visit to Georgia next month to show support, said late Monday.
Russia says the West undermined its own arguments for the sanctity of Georgia's borders by supporting Kosovo's declaration of independence from traditional Russian ally Serbia in February.
Georgia lashed out at Russia, as expected.
"Russia is trying to legalize the results of an ethnic cleansing it has conducted, to oppose it to the West," Georgia's state minister on reintegration, Timur Yakobashvili, told The Associated Press. "But it will result in Russia's isolation from the world."
Britain rejected the Russian move, with the Foreign Office saying it did "nothing to improve the prospects of peace in the Caucasus."
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said France regrets Russia's decision and is committed to the territorial integrity of Georgia.
In practical terms, Russian recognition seems unlikely break the isolation of the two breakaway regions.
Neither region has much to export, or much of an economy. Both rely heavily on Russia for pensions and government subsidies. Most people in the two regions have been given Russian passports, and already consider themselves citizens of Russia.
But it marked an initial step toward what could become modern Russia's first push for territorial expansion.
In London, British oil company BP PLC announced Monday it has reopened the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which runs through Georgia.
The pipeline, which provides some — million barrels per day of Caspian Sea crude to international markets, had been closed for more than two weeks after a fire on its Turkish stretch. Kurdish rebels claimed responsibility for the blaze.
BP's ability to export Caspian oil had been seriously curtailed by both the fire on the Turkish stretch of the BTC line and the fighting with Russia in Georgia.
The London-based company shut down its Baku-Supsa oil pipeline &
which runs through the center of Georgia from Baku in Azerbaijan to Supsa on Georgia's Black Sea coast &
on August 12 because of security concerns. That line, which had been pumping about 90,000 barrels a day, remains closed.
Associated Press Writers Douglas Birch and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia contributed to this report.
Russia recognizes breakaway Georgian regions