Russia expels Nato envoys as rift over war game worsens

Posted in NATO , Russia | 08-May-09 | Author: Luke Harding| Source: The Guardian (UK)

NATO logo is seen here on a Tbilisi street. Political tensions intensified in Georgia after clashes between police and protesters rocked Tbilisi at the start of controversial NATO military exercises in the ex-Soviet state.

Russia's continuing row with Nato worsened today when it expelled two diplomats from Moscow and condemned Nato military exercises in Georgia. The foreign ministry said it was expelling Isabelle Fran├žois, director of Nato's Moscow information office, and her deputy, in effect crippling the work of the alliance's small mission in the capital. Both diplomats are Canadians.

Ministry officials said the move was in retaliation for the expulsion from Nato's Brussels headquarters last week of two Russian diplomats accused of spying. "We are not the ones who initiated this," one Russian official said.

Nato's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said Moscow's action was unjustified, "very unfortunate" and "counter-productive".

Nato is currently embroiled in its most serious conflict with Moscow since last summer, when Georgia attempted to grab back the breakaway pro-Moscow republic of South Ossetia, triggering a Russian invasion.

In recent months the transatlantic alliance had been trying to re-engage with Moscow. But its efforts have been undermined by last week's spy row and by the Kremlin's strong objection to Nato's decision to hold a military training exercise in Georgia.

The exercises involve 10 Nato countries, including Britain, and six other partner countries. The manoeuvres, under the auspices of Nato's Partnership for Peace programme, have provoked a furious reaction from Russia.

Moscow has also lambasted Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's pro-western president. On Tuesday, Saakashvili claimed to have thwarted a Russian-backed mutiny at the Mukhrovani army base, near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Russia dismisses this as "absurd" and says Saakashvili should "send for a doctor".

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to Nato, urged the cancellation of the exercise. "Nato needs to show flexibility and hear our arguments. The worst thing is that this organisation is becoming more and more unpredictable," he said. He added: "Nato's behaviour is not decent, stable or appropriate."

The exercises take place against the backdrop of a growing military build-up on both sides of Georgia's tense and disputed borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway territory. Russia has beefed up its military presence in both territories, which it recognises as independent states, and last week signed an agreement giving its army full control of border security.

The EU and Nato point out that the deal is in breach of a peace agreement signed last August by Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, and France's Nicolas Sarkozy. Under the deal, Medvedev promised to pull Russian troops back to their positions before last summer's war.

Saakashvili's own position inside Georgia, meanwhile, is increasingly under threat after a series of protests by the country's opposition. Opposition leaders have dismissed his claims of an army mutiny as a fabrication intended to discredit his internal enemies. The opposition accuses Saakashvili of mismanaging last year's war and wants him to quit.

Underlying the simmering conflict with Nato is Russia's contention that it has a right to influence events in neighbouring post-Soviet states. Moscow is vehemently against both Georgia and Ukraine joining Nato and says that the organisation is a hostile and expansionist bloc bent on destabilising the region.

For its part, Nato accuses Russia of overreacting. Officials say the exercises are entirely routine, aimed at simulating a peace-keeping mission, and involve just 400 people, mostly sitting in a classroom. The Russians were invited to come along as observers but refused, officials add.

Nato has cooled on the idea of giving membership to Georgia and Ukraine after last year's war. But it rejects the idea of a Russian veto and believes that both countries as sovereign states have a right to join Nato and other western institutions and transatlantic alliances if they choose to.

The manoeuvres are being conducted at a former Russian air force base east of Tbilisi, a few kilometres away from the scene of Tuesday's apparent uprising by a tank division. They get under way proper on Sunday.