US criticizes Russia over Georgia-Abkhazia dispute

May 6, 2008 10:57:25 AM PDT
The Bush administration sharply criticized Russia on Tuesday for what it called a series of "provocative actions" in recent weeks in the dispute between the former Soviet republic of Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia. Russia's moves that came under fire from the White House included what press secretary Dana Perino said was Moscow's downing of an unmanned, unarmed Georgian spy plane in Georgian air space. Russia - a longtime backer of Abkhazia and its ambitions for recognition as an independent state - also has bolstered its peacekeeping forces along the administrative border separating Georgia and Abkhazia. And Moscow unilaterally withdrew from trade and military sanctions on Abkhazia imposed by a grouping of former Soviet republics that includes both Russia and Georgia.

"These steps have significantly and unnecessarily heightened tensions in the region," Perino said.

She said Moscow must "de-escalate and reverse its measures," begin playing a true mediator role in the dispute and reiterate its commitment to Georgia's "territorial integrity and sovereignty."

Perino also warned Georgia not to take any military action to settle its separatist conflicts or to respond to Russia's moves.

Georgia has announced it was withdrawing from a 1995 agreement that coordinated air defenses among defense ministries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The move is expected to have little practical effect, but Russia again accused Georgia of purposely exacerbating tensions and planning to use military force in Abkhazia.

All the recent developments have fueled international fears that full-scale fighting could break out involving Georgia, Abkhazia and the strengthened Russian peacekeeping force.

Abkhazia and another region, South Ossetia, have had de-facto independence since the 1990s, and Moscow's traditional support for the two regions has long angered Georgia.

Russia also opposes Georgia's efforts to draw closer to the United States and NATO, saying membership in the alliance would pose a direct threat to Russia.