Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Ignoring international appeals, Russia has raised the stakes in its standoff with the West by recognizing Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent.
Signing a decree to that effect Tuesday, President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would defend the two republics by all means if they came under attack.Anticipating strong Western reaction that was quick in coming, Medvedev said it would be “no big loss” if NATO decided to scrap its ties with Moscow. Russia did not seek or fear a new Cold War, and it was up to the West whether such a situation developed, he said.
Russia last week said it was halting all cooperation with NATO, after the alliance suspended Russian participation in joint military exercises and said future ties were dependent on Russia pulling its forces out of Georgia.
The Kremlin’s move, evidently intended to demonstrate that the West lacks the means to force it to change direction, swiftly followed votes on Monday by both houses of the Russian parliament, asking the president to recognize the independence of the two territories.
After the votes, President Bush urged Medvedev not to go ahead, and his decision to do so anyway brought a strong reaction from both the U.S. and European Union.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also voiced concern, while Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili accused Russia of trying to “wipe Georgia from the map.”
The leaders of the two breakaway regions, South Ossetia’s Eduard Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh of Abkhazia, hailed the decision, and Kokoity appealed to other nations to follow Russia’s example.
“There are no doubts that recognition of our independence will serve to strengthen peace and stability in the South Caucasus,” he said.
Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast is somewhat larger than Delaware, and has a population of under 200,000. South Ossetia is a little larger than Rhode Island, and before Georgia’s ill-fated offensive earlier this month had a population of about 70,000.
The regions, both of which border Russia and have majorities ethnically distinct from Georgia, have enjoyed de facto independence since wars with Georgia in the early 1990s.
The international community regards them as falling within Georgia’s sovereign borders, and as of late Tuesday, no country other than Russia had indicated a change of position. (Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a leading critic of the U.S., earlier backed Moscow’s actions in Georgia, but has yet to respond publicly to the latest development.)
The crisis in the Caucasus is largely seen here as a by-product of the West’s decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia – historically a Russian ally – earlier this year.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was different to that of Kosovo, and Russia still had not plans to recognize the independence of the Balkan state.
Lavrov also accused NATO nations of starting new arms deliveries to Georgia, thus opening way for a new violent confrontation in the region.
(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)