AFP - Russia on Thursday took formal control of the borders of Georgia's separatist zones and slammed NATO exercises due in the country, as a spy row created new frictions between Moscow and the alliance.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev inked the border defence treaties with the leaders of the Moscow-backed rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a somber Kremlin ceremony.
Under the pact, effective for 10 years, Russia assumes immediate responsibility for guarding the regions' de facto borders with Georgia, including maritime patrols of Abkhazia's strategic Black Sea coast.
Medvedev called the signing a "crucial political act" and said it would be "a key factor for establishing security on our borders and in the whole of the Caucasus".
It comes just one week before NATO holds what it describes as anti-terrorist exercises in Georgia, in the face of vociferous Russian opposition.
"The planned NATO exercises in Georgia, no matter how our Western partners try to convince us otherwise, are an overt provocation. One cannot carry out exercises in a place where there was just a war," Medvedev said at the signing.
Each side accused the other of violating the terms of an EU-brokered ceasefire that ended the five-day Russia-Georgia conflict last August.
"Any actions which would be seen and perceived by Tbilisi as encouragement for the course of remilitarization ... are seen by us as contradicting the six principles for resolving the conflict agreed last August," Medvedev said.
NATO countered that Russia's agreements with the two rebel regions were a "clear contravention" of the ceasefire accord and vowed to press on with the exercises, which will run from May 6 to June 1 and involve over 400 soldiers.
"This is a clear contravention of the 12th of August and 8th of September agreements negotiated by the EU," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels.
Georgia, meanwhile, shrugged off the border pacts, saying they only formalized a state of affairs in place since the end of last summer's war.
"This is yet another step by the Russian authorities towards completing the occupation of these two Georgian regions," the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, Eka Tkeshelashvili, told AFP.
But diplomatic ties were further strained when a NATO diplomat confirmed that the alliance had ordered the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from Brussels, where NATO has its headquarters.
The diplomats, including the son of Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, were evicted on suspicion of spying, after NATO unearthed a spy in Estonia's defence ministry thought to be passing secrets to Moscow.
The expulsions by NATO will not go unanswered, Russia's ambassador to the alliance, Dmitry Rogozin, warned Thursday.
"This is a very provocative action that cannot go without answer," Rogozin told reporters in Brussels.
However he promised a "cool-headed reaction".
"We are not going to lose our temper, those who did that want to undermine the wish of the presidents of our two countries (US and Russia) to have good relations," he added.
News of the expulsion and the fresh sparring over Georgia came just one day after Russia and NATO resumed formal dialogue with ambassador-level talks of the NATO-Russia Council.
The talks were the first official high-level contact between Russia and NATO since the alliance froze ties with Moscow in protest at the Georgia war last August.