Russia Accused Of Looking For A Fight Over Georgia And Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia was accused yesterday of stoking separatist tensions as part of a campaign to prevent the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO.

Russian seamen in Sevastopol. Moscow is fiercely opposed to NATO replacing it in the Crimea after its lease to keep the Black Sea Fleet there expires.

Georgia said that Russia was arming rebels in the breakaway region of Abkhazia to provoke a war and scupper its bid to join the military alliance.

Vano Merabishvili, the country's Interior Minister, said that Russia was pushing Abkhazia into confrontation and providing the separatists with weapons worth millions of dollars.

“The Russians are forcing the Abkhaz to prepare for war,” he told the newspaper Kommersant, adding that the objective was “to guarantee Georgia does not get into NATO. If there is a war and there is a single shot from the Georgian side, Georgia will never become a member of NATO,” he added.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, accused Georgia of seeking confrontation with Moscow. Speaking at an Arctic summit in Greenland, Mr Lavrov said: “I cannot understand what they are after except performing some kind of function of constantly provoking Russia.”

Abkhazia broke away from Georgia after a war in the 1990s and most of its residents now have Russian passports. Moscow infuriated Georgia last month by strengthening economic ties with the region.

Tensions have soared in recent weeks with both sides admitting that they have been close to war. A UN report concluded this week that a Russian fighter shot down a Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia in April.

Moscow also angered Ukraine by declaring that it wanted to keep a naval base in the Crimea despite an agreement to withdraw by May 28, 2017. The Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko, insists that the Russian Black Sea Fleet must leave the port of Sevastopol on time.

Russia's naval base in Sevastopol was established in the 18th century by Catherine the Great. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia was allowed to retain its fleet at the port under a 20-year lease agreement with Ukraine that was signed in 1997.

Vladimir Dorokhin, Russia's special envoy on the Black Sea Fleet, said yesterday that Moscow did not want to leave. He told journalists: “We have never concealed our willingness to keep our presence in Sevastopol after 2017. We don't understand this haste. Why do they think we need nine years for the fleet's withdrawal? Why not fifteen years or five, or four? In the end, this is our fleet, yes? So this must be our headache.”

The issue is sensitive because most residents in Sevastopol are pro-Russian. Ukraine accused Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, of undermining its sovereignty and barred him from the country after he declared that Russia had “a lawful right” to reclaim the port this month.

The bid for NATO membership by Ukraine has heightened tensions about the future of the port. Russia is opposed to the Western military alliance replacing it in the Crimea and the former President, Vladimir Putin, has threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Ukraine if it joins NATO.

“Ukraine has the legitimate right to adopt any decisions it deems important, but they should not run counter to our national interests or make us give them up,” Mr Dorokhin said.

Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, said that membership for Georgia and Ukraine was a “red line” issue. He added: “If NATO crosses this red line, relations will not only be spoilt but they will change drastically.”

Source: The Times