- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

MOSCOW | Russia and NATO sought to limit damage to their relationship Wednesday, after expelling each other’s envoys and despite Moscow’s criticism of military exercises in former Soviet Georgia.

Russia had said NATO’s war games amounted to Western meddling in its sphere of influence, and called NATO’s expulsion of Russian diplomats from alliance headquarters last week a provocation. On Wednesday, Russia kicked out two Canadians who were working for NATO in Moscow.

“We naturally were forced to react,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised comments, adding that Russia was just playing by the “rules of the game.”

But he took pains to emphasize that Moscow wanted normal relations with the Western alliance, despite objections over NATO expansion into former Soviet republics.

Russia’s relations with NATO have been fraught with tension for years over the alliance’s eastward expansion. Tiny Georgia and its aim of joining NATO have become a major irritation.

On April 29, NATO and Russia resumed formal contacts suspended over Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in August. Russia and NATO - which have cooperated in recent months on matters including shipments to Afghanistan - planned a meeting of foreign ministers later this month.

A day later, however, NATO revoked the accreditation of two Russian envoys to alliance headquarters in Brussels. NATO did not give details, but Russia suggested the move was tied to a February espionage scandal in which Moscow was accused of accepting NATO secrets from a spy.

Russia responded Wednesday by expelling Isabelle Francois, the head of NATO’s Information Office in Moscow, and her deputy. The two were the office’s only foreign staff, the alliance said.

Russia also has loudly complained about NATO military exercises that began Wednesday in Georgia, though NATO has encouraged Russia to join the war games and says they pose no threat.

Russia has said it is inappropriate to hold the monthlong military exercises in a country that recently fought and lost a war.

Exacerbating tensions, hundreds of Georgian troops staged a daylong mutiny Tuesday at a tank battalion headquarters near capital Tbilisi. The rebellion ended with the soldiers surrendering without incident.

Russia angrily denied Georgia’s initial claims that Moscow orchestrated the mutiny in hopes of overthrowing the government.

Georgia quickly backtracked and said the mutiny was aimed at disrupting the NATO exercises. Some Georgian opposition members called the mutiny a charade cooked up by President Mikhail Saakashvili to rally support after weeks of opposition protests.

Russia has dismissed the idea of taking part in the NATO exercises in Georgia. Participants were holding meetings until at least May 11, after which battlefield maneuvers would begin, Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman David Dzhokhadze said.

Some 15 countries were taking part, after Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia and Armenia bowed out.

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