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Russia-Georgia conflict raises Black Sea tension

27/08/2008 - 21:29

By Elizabeth Piper and Mark Trevelyan

KIEV/TBILISI (Reuters) - Ukraine said on Wednesday itwanted to discuss charging Russia more to lease a Black Seanaval base, a move that could aggravate regional tensionsalready inflamed by Moscow's conflict with Georgia.

As the U.S. Navy shipped in humanitarian supplies toGeorgia, Russia said its navy was watching "the build-up ofNATO forces in the Black Sea area" and had started takingmeasures to monitor their activity.

Georgia recalled all but two of its diplomats from Moscowin protest after Russia recognized its rebel South Ossetia andAbkhazia regions as independent and President MikheilSaakashvili urged the West to uphold international law.

"Russia clearly intended this as a blatant challenge toworld order. It's now up to all of us to roll Russianaggression back. If they get away with this, they will carry on... they will also attack other countries in theneighbourhood," Saakashvili told Reuters in an interview.

The Group of Seven -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany,Italy, Japan and the United States -- issued a statement to"condemn" Russian recognition of the two rebel regions and to"deplore Russia's excessive use of military force in Georgia."

Russia quickly overwhelmed Georgian forces in a brief warover South Ossetia this month, the first time it has sent itsforces abroad into combat since the 1991 collapse of the SovietUnion.

Russia's troops and tanks continue to occupy parts ofGeorgia included in buffer zones it set up around South Ossetiaand Abkhazia, and Moscow has ignored Western demands towithdraw from them.

Russia says its troops are needed there to protectcivilians from Georgian aggression.

The Georgia crisis has alarmed other former Sovietrepublics with sizable Russian minorities, particularly Ukraineand the Baltic states.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested Russiamight have its eye on neighbouring countries such as Ukraineand Moldova.

"GRAVE VIOLATION"

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Kremlin leader DmitryMedvedev Russia's presence in Georgia's port of Poti and otherareas outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia were "a graveviolation" of the French-brokered ceasefire, her spokesmansaid.

It allows Russia to station troops inside Georgia properbut Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wasready to pull them back after an international monitoringmechanism was in place there.

"We will be ready to make decisions, including in theUnited Nations...on additional increases in the number ofinternational monitors, clarifying their mandate and possiblyother steps with international participation," he said inTajikistan's capital Dushanbe.

Despite the avalanche of international criticism, Moscowsignalled it was relaxed about being the only country torecognize the rebel Georgian regions and ruled out puttingpressure on its allies to follow its example.

"To initiate wide support (for recognition) is not aprimary goal," of Russian foreign policy, Dmitry Peskov,spokesman for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, toldreporters. "We're not going to twist anyone's hands to makethem support (recognition)."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Medvedev hada big responsibility not to start a new Cold War.

"Russia has not reconciled itself to the new map of thisnew region...We do not want a new Cold War and he (Medvedev)has a big responsibility not to start one," Miliband told agroup of students in Ukraine's capital, Kiev.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko joined Westernnations in condemning the Russian move to recognize SouthOssetia and Abkhazia as independent states under Moscow'sprotection.

"We are sorry about this decision, for Ukraine it isunacceptable and therefore we cannot support this position," hesaid in an interview with Reuters.

Yushchenko said Kiev wanted to raise the question ofincreasing Russia's rent on its Sevastopol base in Ukraine'sCrimea region, the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Russia has said any renegotiation would break a 1997agreement between the two countries, under which it currentlyleases the base for $98 million a year until 2017.

The deputy head of Russia's General Staff told a newsbriefing Moscow was sticking strictly to the current agreement,and accused NATO states of "racketing up tension" in the BlackSea by increasing their presence there.

"Now we have people flexing their muscles, demonstratingforce ... We can only regret that," he said.

The United States did, however, avoid a possible directconfrontation with Russia by diverting a U.S. Coast Guard shipcarrying post-war aid to Georgia from the Russian-patrolledport of Poti. U.S. officials did not explain the change ofplan.

Russia's Medvedev has accused the United States of shippingweapons into Georgia, a remark the White House dismissed as"ridiculous."

(Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov in Kiev, MargaritaAntidze in Tbilisi, Niko Mchedlishvili in Batumi, GuyFaulconbridge in Moscow; Arshad Mohammed in Washington; editingby Jon Boyle and Cynthia Osterman)

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