(CNSNews.com) – Just weeks after the U.S. and Russian leaders met at the G20 summit, signaling a new era after a period of strained relations, the optimism generated by that encounter was looking premature Thursday amid a series of heated disputes.
A deepening Russia-NATO row over spying coincided with differences over the two sides’ activities in Georgia, the Westward-leaning former Soviet republic invaded by Russia last summer.
Angry about planned NATO military exercises in Georgia, the Kremlin upped tensions by formalizing the deployment of Russian guards on the “borders” between Georgia-proper and two breakaway regions now effectively under Moscow’s control.
The agreements, inked by President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, give Russia responsibility over the next 5-10 years for securing the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, including Abkhazia’s Black Sea coastline.
The U.S., NATO and the European Union all criticized the move, saying it contravened an E.U.-mediated ceasefire last August that ended the fighting in the Caucasus. The State Department said it also violated Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Russia attacked its small neighbor after Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili launched a military offensive against separatists in South Ossetia. Following the brief war, Russia recognized both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
Reacting to the Western criticism, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko in a statement said the agreements signed Thursday were “designed to strengthen security and stability in the region.”
At the signing ceremony, Medvedev again slammed the NATO exercises scheduled to run from May 6 until June 1, saying they were an “overt provocation,” regardless of Western countries’ assertions to the contrary.
Medvedev said the war games aimed at helping Georgia to rearm after last year’s conflict; NATO officials point out that planning for them began last spring – before that conflict broke out – and they have suggested that Russia send observers to allay its concerns. U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said recently the drills pose no threat to Russia.
The exercises, based on a fictitious U.N.-mandated, NATO-led crisis response operation, are open to NATO members and states belonging to its partnership-for-peace program.
Already three of the latter – Serbia, Moldova and Kazakhstan – have withdrawn, following Russian objections. Russian media also reported that the Baltic states had withdrawn, but Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were not on the original list of 20 participating countries released by NATO earlier.
Political analysts say Georgia, which aspires to NATO membership, is strategically important for several reasons. Russia dominates energy supplies to Europe and has shown a readiness to use them for political leverage; the U.S. is backing an E.U. plan for a pipeline network that would bring natural gas from Central Asia to Europe via Georgia and Turkey, bypassing Russian territory.
Georgia also offers a possible alternative supply line for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Beginning on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, supplies would cross Georgia and Azerbaijan by rail before being shipped across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan, then by road or rail through Uzbekistan to the Afghanistan border.
“Georgia is a key target of Russian efforts to reduce or eliminate alternative access routes to Central Asia and Afghanistan for the U.S., NATO, and Western energy interests,” American University scholars Mamuka Tsereteli and Kelli Hash-Gonzalez wrote in the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute publication CACI Analyst.
“Russian interests will be served by a weak and destabilized Georgia, as that would leave Russia as the key, and maybe sole, potential partner for Western access to Central Asia,” they argued. “In that case, Russia would be able to dictate its own terms of collaboration.”
Russia’s actions in Georgia last year sent relations with the West, already strained over NATO enlargement and U.S. missile defense plans for central Europe, to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
President Obama pledged to “reset” relations with Moscow, and at his first meeting with Medvedev, in London early last month, the two in a joint statement reaffirmed that “the era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over.” That meeting brought a headline agreement to work on reducing nuclear weapons arsenals.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to visit Washington next week, in part to prepare for a planned visit by Obama to Moscow in July.
The new tensions over Georgia Thursday came on the same day as NATO expelled two Russian diplomats based at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, in retaliation for an embarrassing security breach discovered late last year.
A top Estonian defense official, Herman Simm, was sentenced to 12.5 years’ imprisonment in February after being found guilty of selling NATO secrets to Moscow over a 12-year period.
Simm was apparently recruited in the late 1980s, when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union, and began to sell secret information from 1995. Estonia joined NATO in 2004.
Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, reacted furiously to the expulsion and warned, without elaborating, that Moscow’s response would be “clear and tough.”
In a statement on the Russian mission Web site, Rogozin named the two expelled diplomats as security officer and attache Vasily Chizhov and head of the political section, Viktor Kochukov. Chizhov is the son of the Russian ambassador to the E.U., Vladimir Chizhov, who is also based in Brussels.
Rogozin said the two were declared persona non grata “in view of inconsistency of their activities with the diplomatic status” – language that usually indicates suspicion of espionage. He denied the accusation.
The move to expel them coincided with the resumption Wednesday of formal NATO-Russia talks, after an eight-month suspension resulting from the Georgia war.
Russia’s foreign ministry in a statement said the NATO move contradicted alliance leaders’ statements about a willingness to normalize relations with Russia.