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Crisis fuels U.S.-Russia animosities

The conflict in Georgia threatens to push the two powers toward a Cold War- like standoff.

August 15, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

GORI, GEORGIA — With Russia still defying U.S. demands to pull its troops from Georgia, the short, one-sided fight over two small mountain provinces widened Thursday into the sharpest exchanges yet between Washington and Moscow, threatening to unravel the post-Cold War consensus between them.

As Washington dispatched humanitarian relief, but no military aid, to its Georgian allies, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned that unless Russian forces relented from their incursion into Georgia, "the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come."

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov bluntly told the Georgians to "forget about" recovering the two secessionist provinces whose unsettled fate triggered this month's fighting. Instead of withdrawing, as demanded a day earlier by President Bush, the Russian military plunged deeper into several towns in Georgia proper, Georgian officials said.

Despite official denials, Russian troops remained in control on the streets of Gori, a garrison city near the border with the rebel province of South Ossetia, setting up roadblocks into the city as Georgian forces looked on helplessly.

But the war over the Russian-backed provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia may already be having wider repercussions. U.S. and Polish officials Thursday signed a preliminary agreement to install part of Washington's anti-ballistic missile defense shield in Poland, a system the U.S. says is aimed at protecting it and its European allies from attack by "rogue states" such as Iran, but which Moscow views as being directed against Russia.

The White House said the deal with Poland, hastily concluded after 18 months of negotiations, was not signed in response to the Russian incursion into Georgia. But the Bush administration has been scrambling to find concrete measures to match its rhetorical attacks on the more assertive posture of its former Cold War enemy.

Gates ruled out U.S. military engagement on behalf of Georgia, and said there were signs that Russian troops were preparing to withdraw. But at a Pentagon news conference, he described the Russian foray across the border in harsh language, accusing Moscow of aiming "to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West economically and politically and in security arrangements."

The Russians showed no sign of rolling back their military gains. Receiving the presidents of the two rebel republics Thursday at the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made it plain that Russia would fight hard to support the republics' independence.

"I'll support any decision taken by the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," Medvedev told the two leaders. "And we not only support these decisions but will guarantee them in the Caucasus and in the world."

Gates said the Russians appeared to be destroying Georgian military assets in areas of the country under their control. Georgia's U.N. ambassador, Irakli Alasania, accused Russia of violating a French-negotiated cease-fire in and around the towns of Zugdidi, Senaki, Poti and Gori.

He said the Russians were occupying a military base in Senaki and had destroyed a radar system and several vessels in the Black Sea port of Poti.

"Georgian cities remain subject to hostile and aggressive behavior," Alasania said, adding that Russia's leaders believe their action is "specifically targeted to eliminate Georgian statehood."

Whatever Russia's intention, there appeared to be little that Georgian security forces could do about it. At one point Thursday, Georgian police headed toward the strategically crucial city of Gori, intent on taking control -- only to be chased off by Russian troops.

While the Georgian security forces languished helplessly along the roadsides, Russians set up roadblocks and paralyzed one of the country's main roads.

Nor did the Russians show any sign of heeding Bush's warning to respect the "territorial integrity" of Georgia, a demand that produced a derisive response from Moscow.

"I think we can forget about talking about Georgia's territorial integrity," said Lavrov, the foreign minister, according to the Interfax news agency. "We do not want Georgia's breakup, but neither the South Ossetians nor the Abkhaz want to live in the same state with a man who sends his troops against them."

Russia's United Nations ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, denied that Russian troops were occupying Gori.

Russian soldiers "are not in Gori, have never been in Gori and do not occupy Gori," Churkin said, rejecting news reports that the town was in ruins. "Gori is there, with electricity and water."

That view was contradicted by scenes on the outskirts of the city. Refugees continued to pour out of Gori and nearby villages, telling of burned houses, looting, killings and rape at the hands of militia-style fighters who entered Georgia on the heels of Russian soldiers.

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