US/Russian Tensions Rise Over Georgia

By: Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili AP Email
By: Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili AP Email

BATUMI, Georgia (AP) - A U.S. warship anchored off Georgia forjoint military exercises Tuesday while Russian jets pounded mock targets nearby in a sign of lingering tensions over the former Soviet nation turned U.S. ally.

The U.S. and Russian maneuvers marked a stark change in tone from meetings last week between President Barack Obama and Russia's
Dmitry Medvedev, who expressed hope for repairing relations that
have sunk to a post-Cold War low.

During meetings in Moscow last week, Obama warned Moscow to
respect the territorial integrity of Georgia and reject the notion that it holds a zone of privileged interest among its former Soviet neighbors. Russia praised the U.S. administration, but made no concessions in its long-running dispute with the West over its role in the post-Soviet space.

Georgia is still seething over what it views as Russia's occupation of South Ossetia after the August conflict, when Russian tanks drove deep into Georgia before pulling back. Georgia had attacked South Ossetia, which has long had de facto independence, to try to reassert government control. Russian tanks and troops poured into the region and overwhelmed the Georgian army. Russia said it was acting in defense of locals with Russian passports.

Hopes have risen in recent months that the U.S.-Russia tensions that led up to that war would be defused under a new U.S. administration, but recent events in and around Georgia's mountainous lands suggest the two sides are still deeply divided.

The guided missile destroyer the USS Stout on Tuesday anchored off Batumi, where its captain, Commander Mark J. Oberley, was welcomed ashore with Georgian music and wine. The Stout is the sixth U.S. warship to visit Georgian ports since the war.

"This visit and the combined training demonstrate the U.S. and Georgian commitment to work together, to cooperate and maintain maritime security," Oberley said.

Two vessels of the Georgian coast guard are to participate alongside the USS Stout in Wednesday's drills in Georgian territorial waters between the ports of Batumi and Poti. Georgian Navy Commander Beso Shengelia said the small-scale exercises would involve averting a sinking after a hull breach, capturing a hostile boat, and joint maneuvers in conflict situations.

A couple of hours after the events in Batumi, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev peered through binoculars to watch jets fly over Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and fire at nonexistent ground targets. He was shown on state-controlled TV.

Georgia's military cooperation with the United States irritates Moscow, which considers Western forays into Georgia since the war destabilizing.

The forthcoming naval exercises in Georgia and the Russian air force drills take to at least four the instances of cooperative military maneuvering in territory adjacent to the conflict zone since the five-day war.

Russia voiced outrage in May over NATO drills near Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, equating them to foreign interference in Georgia's domestic affairs. Russia promptly conducted its own exercises on a much larger scale near the Georgian border earlier this month. Those exercises ended on Obama's first day in Moscow, July 6.

Medvedev, meanwhile, on Monday made his first visit to South Ossetia since the war - a visit cast by Moscow as a show of solidarity for locals under perpetual threat of a new Georgia attack.

Georgia, which called Medvedev's visit a provocation, insists that South Ossetia is under Russian occupation. Thousands of Russian troops remain in the province, and the boundary with Georgia proper has been fortified. Only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized South Ossetia as an independent nations.

The port of Poti, meanwhile, is close to Georgia's de facto border with Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed breakaway province. Poti was occupied by Russian troops in the weeks after the conflict and Abkhaz rebels clashed with Georgian forces during the war. Moscow later also recognized Abkhazia.

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