Russia And The West Faceoff In Georgia

Girls ride on a car while holding Russian, left, and South Ossetian separatists' flags in Tskhinvali, the capital of Georgia's separatist-controlled territory of South Ossetia, Aug. 25, 2008.
AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel
Russia formally recognized the breakaway Georgian territories at the heart of its war with Georgia on Tuesday, heightening tensions with the West as the United States dispatched military ships bearing aid to a port city still controlled 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 Tuesday in a televised address announcing Russia's recognition of the breakaway territories.

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.

"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.

Meanwhile, in a direct challenge to Russia, the United States announced Tuesday it intends to deliver humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Georgian port city of Poti, which Russian troops still control through checkpoints on the city's outskirts.

The humanitarian aid was to be delivered Wednesday by ship, a U.S. embassy spokesman said.

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 Tuesday 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.

Many of the Russian forces that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in South Ossetia have pulled back, but hundreds are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones" inside Georgia proper.

Two of those checkpoints are near the edge of Poti, one of Georgia's most important Black Sea ports. The Russian military is also claiming the right to patrol in the city.

On the heels of Russia's first post-Soviet invasion of a foreign country, recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was another stark demonstration of the Kremlin's determination to hold sway in lands where its clout is jeopardized by NATO's expansion and growing Western influence.

Medvedev ignored Western warnings against recognizing the independence claims of the two regions, which broke from Georgian government control in early 1990s wars and have run their own affairs with Russian support.

After Russia's parliament urged the move in unanimous votes Monday, the U.S. State Department said recognition would be "unacceptable" and President Bush urged the Kremlin against it.