Russia's Dmitry Medvedev officially recognised the Georgian rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states on Tuesday. Western leaders "strongly condemned" the move.
Russia on Tuesday formally recognised the Georgian rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in a new challenge to the West that drew sharp warnings of consequences.
Flanked by two Russian flags, President Dmitry Medvedev announced he had signed decrees recognising the independence of the two regions at the heart of the conflict that erupted this month in Georgia.
"This is not an easy choice, but it is the only way to save the lives of people," Medvedev said in a nationally-televised address.
The Kremlin leader charged that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had "opted for genocide" when his forces attacked South Ossetia on August 7, prompting Russia to send troops and tanks deep inside Georgian territory.
In Tbilisi, Saakashvili assailed the Russian move as an "attempt to wipe Georgia from the map" and promised to wage a "peaceful struggle" to win back the territories.
The decision was greeted with bursts of gunfire on the streets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia but the United States and the European Union said they were considering retaliatory measures.
US President George W. Bush called on Russia to reconsider an "irresponsible decision."
The European Union said it "strongly condemned" the move and a statement from the French EU presidency said the 27-nation bloc would now "examine from this point of view the consequences of Russia's decision."
A White House spokesman said the US was "looking at a variety of options with regard to consequences for Russia's behaviour in Georgia, its aggression in Georgia."
The move was seen as cementing Russia's military gains in the Caucasus following the five-day conflict with Georgian forces.
Amid a hail of international criticism, Medvedev was unapologetic, saying: "We're not afraid of anything."
"We will do everything we can to avoid" a new Cold War, he said in an interview to French LCI television.
But he added: "If they want relations to worsen, they will get it."
Fears of an escalation were rife, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner saying: "We fear a war and we don't want one."
His German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier said all sides were "playing with fire" and urged: "The spiral of provocation must stop, and immediately."
Britain's Foreign Minister David Miliband said the announcement "further inflames an already tense situation in the region."
Russia accused the US and some European countries of starting to rebuild Georgia's military with fresh arms deliveries.
"The United States and some European capitals are promising Saakashvili defence by NATO, calling for the re-arming of the Tbilisi regime and already starting new arms deliveries to him," a foreign ministry statement said.
In his televised address, Saakashvili shot back at Moscow and said his country would step up its campaign to join NATO.
Russia seeks to "break the Georgian state, undermine the fundamental values of Georgia and to wipe Georgia fron the map," he said.
"This is the first attempt in Europe after Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union to put a neighbouring state on its knees and to change the borders of Europe by force," he said.
Russia's ambassador to NATO earlier announced Moscow was suspending cooperation with the Western alliance but that it would not pull out of an agreement to help stabilise Afghanistan, he said.
Dmitry Rogozin said the alliance was "frozen in the Stone Age of the Cold War."
Russia has drawn a direct comparison between South Ossetia and Abkhazia, on the one hand, and Kosovo, whose aspirations for independence from Serbia were supported militarily and diplomatically by the West.
The international community had warned Russia against recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from Georgia in the early 1990s with Moscow's backing after brief but bloody wars.
Tensions have mounted since Russian forces entered Georgia on August 8 to thwart a Georgian attempt to retake South Ossetia.
France brokered a ceasefire but the US and other Western nations accused Russia of breaching the accord by keeping tanks and troops in Georgia.
The US embassy in Tbilisi announced that a US navy destroyer carrying humanitarian aid was headed to the Georgian port of Poti, but later backtracked, saying it could no longer confirm the operation.
A senior Russian general condemned a build-up of NATO ships in the Black Sea, said by the West to be delivering aid and conducting previously arranged exercises.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down Western opposition to the recognition, saying there was no question of Russia annexing the two rebel regions.
"I don't think we should really be afraid of isolation," Lavrov said. "Common sense should prevail."
The world's second-largest oil producer, Russia is also a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council and plays a central role in efforts to solve global problems such as the controversy over Iran's nuclear programme.
Date created : 2008-08-26