Russia on Tuesday formally recognised Georgian rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in a startling new challenge to the West.
President Dmitry Medvedev announced the move which brought people firing guns onto the streets of the South Ossetian capital, but immediate condemnation from the United States, Britain and France.
NATO ships are in the Black Sea on aid missions to Georgia and on previously arranged exercises — but their presence was condemned by Russia.
Medvedev said in a national television address that he had signed a decree recognising South Ossetia — the catalyst for the five day conflict with Georgia this month — and Abkhazia.
“Russia calls on other states to follow its example,” he added, insisting that the move was in line with the UN charter and international law.
“This is not an easy choice, but it is the only way to save the lives of people,” Medvedev said. He said Russia had shown “restraint and patience” with Georgia and had repeatedly sought to resolve the dispute through negotiations.
Medvedev said Russia’s proposals to Georgia went unanswered. “Unfortunately, they were ignored also by NATO and the UN.” Western nations strongly criticised Russia.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the Russian move “regrettable” and insisted the two regions “are clearly within the internationally recognised borders of Georgia.”
“This contradicts the principle of territorial integrity, a principle based on the international law of nations and for this reason it is unacceptable,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “We reject this categorically and reaffirm Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
“We consider that this is a regrettable decision and we reiterate our commitment to the territorial integrity of Georgia,” a French foreign ministry spokesman said.
The Czech Republic and Sweden added their voices to the condemnation.
Russia’s ambassador to NATO earlier announced Moscow was suspending cooperation with NATO and a visit by the Western military alliance’s secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
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 United States and other Western nations have 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 said it could no longer confirm the operation.
Other US and NATO vessels are also in the Black Sea or heading there and a top Russian general questioned the “extreme level” of NATO naval activity in the region.
“We’re bewildered at the extreme level of activity of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea, which continue to increase their numbers,” General Anatoly Nogovitsyn told a briefing.