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Harsh words heat up East-West crisis

Times Staff Writers

The ongoing conflict over Georgia’s breakaway regions prompted even harsher rhetoric from all sides Friday, including Russian anger over an accord to install a U.S. missile defense system in Poland.

As Moscow continued to insist on autonomy for the disputed Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accused the United States of trying to encircle Russia by signing the agreement to install antimissile interceptors in Poland in the midst of the current crisis.

That agreement, which the U.S. says is aimed at preventing attacks from “rogue states” such as Iran, was finalized Thursday.

“The deployment of new antimissile forces in Europe has as its aim the Russian Federation,” Medvedev said. “The moment has been chosen well. And therefore any fairy tales about deterring other states, fairy tales that with the help of this system we will deter some sort of rogue states, no longer work.”

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His sharp rebuke to Washington came on a day that the Bush administration dispatched its top diplomat to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi -- within 25 miles of Russian tanks -- to offer moral and economic support to the beleaguered U.S. ally.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Tbilisi to meet Georgian President Mi- kheil Saakashvili, who signed a formal cease-fire. She echoed President Bush’s demand that Russian troops withdraw from Georgia.

Rice described Russia’s incursion as an “attack,” language sure to anger Moscow officials who insist that Georgia started the conflict over the fate of its secessionist-minded provinces that has spilled into Georgia proper.

“Russia needs to leave Georgia at once,” she said. “This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbor and overthrew its government,” she added, in reference to the Soviet Union’s crushing of the “Prague Spring” liberalization movement.

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But Russian officials sounded ever more defiant, vowing again that Georgia would never get back its breakaway regions.

“Unfortunately, after what has happened it is unlikely that the Ossetians and the Abkhazians will be able to live in one state together with the Georgians,” Medvedev said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met the Russian president in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in an effort to defuse the crisis.

Medvedev said Russian peacekeepers would continue to guarantee the “will of the people” of the two disputed regions.

Increasingly, however, the dispute appeared to be rippling out of the Caucasus to rock broader East-West relations.

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Bush said from the White House Rose Garden that Russia was trying to act like a Cold War superpower, browbeating its smaller neighbors.

“With its actions in recent days, Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world,” Bush said. “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.”

The return to Cold War-era rhetoric was matched in Moscow, where a top Russian general suggested that his country would be willing to retaliate militarily against Poland for its decision to accept on its territory the U.S.-designed antimissile defense, going so far as to suggest that a nuclear response could be warranted.

“Poland, by deploying [the interceptors], is exposing itself to a strike -- 100%,” said Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the general staff. Russian military doctrine permits the use of nuclear weapons “against the allies of countries having nuclear weapons if they in some way help them,” he said.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a planned trip to Poland to protest the missile defense agreement.

Bush announced that Rice would travel to Brussels next week to try to get the U.S. and Europe working closer together on the crisis.

Even as American officials tried to increase pressure on Moscow, Russian troops continued to consolidate their occupation of several cities in Georgia outside the disputed territories.

Those actions drew an emotional denunciation from Saakashvili, who accused Russia of moving tanks deeper into Georgian territory.

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Speaking alongside Rice at a news conference outside the presidential palace, Saakashvili several times described Russians as “barbarians.”

He slammed the leaders in Moscow as “former KGB warriors,” an insult apparently directed at Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who served in his nation’s Soviet-era intelligence service. And Saakashvili insisted that the Russian operation in Georgia was a prelude to attacks on other countries.

“Unfortunately today we are looking evil in the eye,” he said. “And this evil is very strong, very nasty and very dangerous for all of us.”

Saakashvili announced Friday that he had signed the French-backed peace deal he and his Russian counterpart had agreed to orally Wednesday.

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Though the peace agreement called for Russian and Georgian forces to return to their positions before the conflict began, Russian troops were not pulling back Friday. And there were signs that they were destroying Georgian military capabilities in the parts of the country they controlled.

Russian officials said they would abide by the cease-fire agreement -- once they had verified the legitimacy of Saakashvili’s signature.

Rice said international monitors could arrive in Georgia “within days” as a prelude to a possible multinational peacekeeping force. European and Georgian officials on the sidelines of the news conference said no details had been spelled out.

Both Rice and Bush pointedly noted Friday that they were planning to confer with their “G-7" allies. The reference seemed to exclude Russia from the Group of 8 industrial nations, which it joined after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Critics of Moscow’s incursion into Georgia have suggested that the G-8 expel Russia.

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White House officials declined to comment on the “G-7" usage but acknowledged that there were no immediate plans for any U.S. officials to travel to Russia.

“We’ve had high-level contact with the leaders of Russia. Secretary Rice has spoken to her counterparts,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “There will be an appropriate time to have additional high-level contacts with the Russians.”

Still, the Bush administration has little diplomatic leverage to bring to bear against Moscow other than to undercut Russia’s standing in international organizations.

One European diplomat in Tbilisi listed barring Russia’s participation in such organizations, limiting its financial transactions with the West or restricting access to visas for Russians as possible measures the international community could take to punish or sway Moscow. But such measures could also backfire, he said.

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“Many of these measures are double-edged swords,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with standard practice. “It might be in the long term you would have less possibility to influence Russia.”

During five hours of talks in Tbilisi, Rice and Saakashvili also discussed a U.S.-backed aid package to, as Rice put it, “restore Georgia’s economy.”

Though Georgia, unlike its wealthy neighbor Azerbaijan, lacks oil or gas reserves, its economy had been growing steadily, with new five-star hotels and upscale housing projects sprouting in the capital.

To underscore Washington’s message, the White House released an early text of the president’s weekly radio address.

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“In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the West,” Bush is to say in the address this morning. “The United States has supported those efforts. Now Russia has put its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions.

“To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must act to end this crisis.”

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daragahi@latimes.com maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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Daragahi reported from Tbilisi and Reynolds from Washington.


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