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Harsh words heat up East-West crisis

The Georgia conflict turns into a battle of wills on several fronts.

August 16, 2008|Borzou Daragahi and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

TBILISI, GEORGIA — The ongoing conflict over Georgia's breakaway regions prompted even harsher rhetoric from all sides Friday, including Russian anger over an accord to install a U.S. missile defense system in Poland.

As Moscow continued to insist on autonomy for the disputed Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accused the United States of trying to encircle Russia by signing the agreement to install antimissile interceptors in Poland in the midst of the current crisis.

That agreement, which the U.S. says is aimed at preventing attacks from "rogue states" such as Iran, was finalized Thursday.

"The deployment of new antimissile forces in Europe has as its aim the Russian Federation," Medvedev said. "The moment has been chosen well. And therefore any fairy tales about deterring other states, fairy tales that with the help of this system we will deter some sort of rogue states, no longer work."

His sharp rebuke to Washington came on a day that the Bush administration dispatched its top diplomat to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi -- within 25 miles of Russian tanks -- to offer moral and economic support to the beleaguered U.S. ally.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Tbilisi to meet Georgian President Mi- kheil Saakashvili, who signed a formal cease-fire. She echoed President Bush's demand that Russian troops withdraw from Georgia.

Rice described Russia's incursion as an "attack," language sure to anger Moscow officials who insist that Georgia started the conflict over the fate of its secessionist-minded provinces that has spilled into Georgia proper.

"Russia needs to leave Georgia at once," she said. "This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbor and overthrew its government," she added, in reference to the Soviet Union's crushing of the "Prague Spring" liberalization movement.

But Russian officials sounded ever more defiant, vowing again that Georgia would never get back its breakaway regions.

"Unfortunately, after what has happened it is unlikely that the Ossetians and the Abkhazians will be able to live in one state together with the Georgians," Medvedev said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met the Russian president in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in an effort to defuse the crisis.

Medvedev said Russian peacekeepers would continue to guarantee the "will of the people" of the two disputed regions.

Increasingly, however, the dispute appeared to be rippling out of the Caucasus to rock broader East-West relations.

Bush said from the White House Rose Garden that Russia was trying to act like a Cold War superpower, browbeating its smaller neighbors.

"With its actions in recent days, Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world," Bush said. "Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century."

The return to Cold War-era rhetoric was matched in Moscow, where a top Russian general suggested that his country would be willing to retaliate militarily against Poland for its decision to accept on its territory the U.S.-designed antimissile defense, going so far as to suggest that a nuclear response could be warranted.

"Poland, by deploying [the interceptors], is exposing itself to a strike -- 100%," said Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the general staff. Russian military doctrine permits the use of nuclear weapons "against the allies of countries having nuclear weapons if they in some way help them," he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a planned trip to Poland to protest the missile defense agreement.

Bush announced that Rice would travel to Brussels next week to try to get the U.S. and Europe working closer together on the crisis.

Even as American officials tried to increase pressure on Moscow, Russian troops continued to consolidate their occupation of several cities in Georgia outside the disputed territories.

Those actions drew an emotional denunciation from Saakashvili, who accused Russia of moving tanks deeper into Georgian territory.

Speaking alongside Rice at a news conference outside the presidential palace, Saakashvili several times described Russians as "barbarians."

He slammed the leaders in Moscow as "former KGB warriors," an insult apparently directed at Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who served in his nation's Soviet-era intelligence service. And Saakashvili insisted that the Russian operation in Georgia was a prelude to attacks on other countries.

"Unfortunately today we are looking evil in the eye," he said. "And this evil is very strong, very nasty and very dangerous for all of us."

Saakashvili announced Friday that he had signed the French-backed peace deal he and his Russian counterpart had agreed to orally Wednesday.

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