Russia: we are ready for a new cold war

Posted in Europe , Russia | 27-Aug-08 | Author: Ian Traynor| Source: The Guardian (UK)

Dmitry Medvedev and his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

Relations with the west plummet as Kremlin recognises breakaway states

Russia's relations with the west plunged to their most critical point in a generation yesterday when the Kremlin built on its military rout of Georgia by recognising the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Declaring that if his decision meant a new cold war, then so be it, President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree conferring Russian recognition on Georgia's two secessionist regions. The move flouted UN security council resolutions and dismissed western insistence during the crisis of the past three weeks on respecting Georgia's territorial integrity and international borders.

Last night, Medvedev accused Washington of shipping arms to Georgia under the guise of humanitarian aid.

The Kremlin's unilateral decision to redraw the map of the strategically vital region on the Black Sea surprised and alarmed the west, and raised the stakes in the Caucasus crisis. Moscow challenged Europe and the US to respond, while calculating that western divisions over policy towards Russia would dilute any damage.

Washington condemned the move. Britain called for a European coalition against Russian "aggression". Sweden said Russia had opted for a path of confrontation with the west, and international organisations denounced Medvedev's move as illegitimate and unacceptable.

"We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new cold war," Medvedev said. "Russia is a state which has to ensure its interests along the whole length of its border. This is absolutely clear."

While Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused the US, a strong backer of President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, of gunboat diplomacy by using its airforce and naval vessels to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia, Medvedev last night went further.

He said Russian forces were not blockading Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti. "There is no blockade. Any ship can get in, American and others are bringing in humanitarian cargoes. And what the Americans call humanitarian cargoes - of course, they are bringing in weapons," he told the BBC.

Last night a source close to the US embassy in Tbilisi said US warships had abandoned a plan to deliver supplies to the port. The USS McFaul had been due to arrive in Poti tomorrow after unloading supplies in the Georgian port of Batumi.

The Nato secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said: "Russia's actions in recent weeks call into question Russia's commitment to peace and stability in the Caucasus."

But Moscow oozed confidence that the western response would be mostly bark and little bite, restricted to sharp words and some tolerable diplomatic sanctions. "I don't think we should be afraid of isolation. I don't believe isolation is looming," said Lavrov. "This should not really be a doomsday scenario."

The Kremlin decision, prepared on Monday by the Russian parliament's unanimous vote in favour of independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is widely seen as presaging Russian annexation at least of South Ossetia, a poor, crime-ridden mountain region of only 70,000 people which has little prospect of becoming a viable state.

South Ossetia was the spark that ignited the crisis this month after Saakashvili launched a disastrous attempt to recapture the region and met a Russian invasion which crippled his country.

"Russia's actions are an attempt to militarily annex a sovereign nation direct violation of international law," Saakashvili said last night. "The Russian Federation is seeking to validate the use of violence, direct military aggression, and ethnic cleansing to forcibly change the borders of a neighbouring state."

But senior Russian officials, from Medvedev down, launched a concerted attack on Saakashvili, accusing him of "genocide", of seeking to "exterminate" the people of South Ossetia, and of leaving Russia no alternative.

"This is not an easy choice to make, but it represents the only possibility to save human lives," said Medvedev. "Saakashvili opted for genocide to accomplish his political objectives. By doing so, he himself dashed all the hopes for the peaceful coexistence of Ossetians, Abkhazians and Georgians in a single state."

Lavrov said Russia's decision was "absolutely inevitable, short of losing our dignity as a nation".

Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to Nato, likened the international climate to the summer of 1914 before the first world war, and compared the Georgian leader to Gavrilo Princip, the Balkan assassin who shot the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo.

Russia's decision to recognise the two regions effectively killed off the ceasefire and peace plan negotiated a fortnight ago by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union.

Exasperated by Russia's refusal to observe the terms of the truce, Sarkozy has already called an emergency EU summit for Monday in Brussels. The meeting was supposed to chart a common EU position on Russia, but is as likely to expose Europe's dilemmas and divisions over how to deal with an increasingly assertive Kremlin.

David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, said he wanted to forge "the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia. We fully support Georgia's independence and territorial integrity, which cannot be changed by decree from Moscow."

But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, while denouncing the Russian move as "absolutely unacceptable", said she wanted to keep dialogue running with Moscow.

Miliband is due to fly to Kiev today to express British support for the Ukrainian government, which fears it could be next in line for Russian pressure aimed at thwarting its efforts to join Nato.

Miliband is due to meet Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko, and its prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, whose government is in a precarious position: seeking membership of Nato and the EU in the face of determined opposition from the country's Russian minority.

Under a lease agreement, Russia's Black Sea fleet is based on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, increasing Russian sensitivity to Ukraine's westward trajectory and Ukrainian vulnerability to pressure from Moscow.

Miliband will make a speech today to a university audience in Kiev, in which he will laud Ukrainian democracy and warn Russia that its actions will cause long-term harm to its standing on the world stage.