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Georgia war games launch despite Russia’s fierce objections

NATO war games got underway in the nation of Georgia on Wednesday, pushed ahead despite a furious outcry from Moscow and a bloodless but embarrassing mutiny at a nearby Georgian military base earlier this week.

More than 1,000 soldiers from the United States, Europe and elsewhere have gathered at a military base near Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, for several weeks of training and simulated peacekeeping exercises.

The games, part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Partnership for Peace program, had been planned before combat broke out last summer between Georgia and Russia.

Russian leaders have issued fervent calls for the alliance to cancel the exercises and keep its troops out of Georgia, warning of dire consequences if it didn’t. Conducting military maneuvers in what was recently, albeit briefly, a war zone could only serve as an “open provocation,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last week.

Tension swelled further Wednesday when Russia stripped accreditation from two Canadian diplomats stationed at NATO’s Moscow office. Their ouster is payback for the booting last week of two representatives from Moscow’s permanent mission to the alliance, Russian officials said.

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The ouster and fiery rhetoric are the latest in a series of flare-ups between Russia and NATO. Formal ties between Moscow and the Cold War-era military alliance resumed this month after a break caused by the fighting between Georgia and Russia. But relations, paradoxically, have deteriorated sharply.

Now that the Obama administration has extended an olive branch to Moscow, offering to “reset” badly damaged relations, Russia must find a new outlet for its irritation with the West, said Alexander Golts, a military analyst with the Russian online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

“NATO is the most useful for this,” Golts said. “You can blame NATO without blaming any particular country. It’s a nickname for the West in general.”

Georgia is a symbolically loaded backdrop, having emerged in the last year as an epicenter of conflicting worldviews and festering anger between Russia and the West.

In Russia, bitterness over last summer’s brief war with Georgia remains strong. Russian officials say they were justified in sending tanks and warplanes over the border after fighting broke out in South Ossetia, a separatist Georgian republic, and they are indignant over the West’s denunciation of the military action.

Russian leaders routinely describe Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as mentally unstable and refuse to deal with him. Analysts say Russia is incensed by the NATO exercises because it sees them as tacit approval of Saakashvili’s government.

As Georgian officials quashed the brief uprising of a tank battalion this week, they accused Russia of plotting a failed nationwide military coup. Russia denies that and instead describes the mutiny as further evidence of Saakashvili’s crumbling hold on power.

The NATO ambitions of Ukraine and Georgia, countries where Russian leaders see themselves as entitled to what Medvedev calls a “privileged” sphere of influence, have infuriated the Kremlin.

NATO’s ouster of the two Russian diplomats was another sharp irritant. The men were accused of using diplomatic cover to spy, Russian officials said. Moscow denied the charge and vowed to retaliate.

Demanding the Canadians’ credentials Wednesday, Russian officials made it plain that they were retaliating for the spy allegations. Nobody leveled any accusations at the Canadians.

On the contrary, Russian state news quoted an anonymous Foreign Ministry source as saying that one of them, NATO Information Office head Isabelle Francois, “personally has very good feelings toward Russia and has perhaps done quite a lot to develop our ties.” Her departure from Russia is “sad,” the source said.

Canada protested the ouster. And in Brussels, the military alliance called it “very unfortunate and counterproductive to our efforts to restore our dialogue and cooperation with Russia.”

Russia’s top diplomat brushed off the criticism.

“These are the rules of the game,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow. “Our NATO partners, at least those who initiated the expulsion of our diplomats, could not have expected something less.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com


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