- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

Russia is engaged in a “creeping annexation” of two separatist enclaves inside Georgia, Foreign Minister David Bakradze charged this week, saying the Kremlin had escalated its hostile policy toward its neighbor by shooting down an unmanned Georgian surveillance plane over the weekend.

Mr. Bakradze outlined Tbilisi’s growing concerns at a Washington briefing Tuesday evening. He outlined those worries again yesterday in a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and in an emergency closed U.N. Security Council session in New York on the crisis later in the day.

The Georgian diplomat said Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken legal, diplomatic and military steps in recent months to increase the Kremlin’s support of the breakaway ethnic enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“We’re in a very dangerous situation now,” he said, calling Mr. Putin’s policy a “creeping annexation process.”

“This is the first time somebody has questioned Georgia’s sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he said, speaking at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Just before yesterday’s State Department meeting, Miss Rice said U.S. support for Georgia’s territorial integrity is “firm.”

“There should be no question as to Georgia’s integrity and Georgia’s full incorporation into the international community,” she said.

Russia-Georgia ties, never easy, have deteriorated sharply in recent days. Moscow denies that one of its MiG-29 fighter jets shot down the unmanned spy plane Sunday, but Mr. Bakradze said his country had both video and radar evidence to the contrary.

Georgia does not have de facto control of either separatist area, both of which have established strong links with Russia. Mr. Putin recently ordered his government to take “practical steps” to boost ties with the two regions, including increased trade and honoring laws passed by the separatist governments.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has incensed Russia with an actively pro-U.S. and pro-Western foreign policy, including a strong push to join NATO. Many in Tbilisi say the Kremlin has never accepted the loss of control over Georgia, a former republic of the Soviet Union.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, the U.S. government’s point man in the region, called the recent escalation “extremely serious” and said Russia’s recent actions “arguably went right on the edge of recognizing the independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mr. Bryza praised Georgia’s restrained response to the plane shooting, and said a military conflict could open a “Pandora’s box” for the volatile Caucasus region.

“My sense is that the Russian Federation understands as well as anybody that there is no military solution to these disputes,” he said.

Mr. Bakradze said Russia had taken a more aggressive tack after the recent inconclusive NATO summit in Romania. In a compromise between the United States and skeptical Western European states, Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in the Western alliance but not given the official invitation to become candidates that President Bush had wanted.

Mr. Putin has lobbied fiercely against NATO expansion into the two former Soviet states.

Mr. Bakradze said Georgia was in a “gray zone” and faced a “period of increased risk” from Russia until it could obtain the NATO invitation.

Georgia is preparing a new offer of aid and autonomy guarantees to the breakaway regions in hopes of ending the standoff, but the foreign minister said in the end, his country “will do as any government would do about a blatantly open military occupation of its territory.”

“It is a Russian decision,” Mr. Bakradze said. “If they do take these steps, they will put all of us in a corner.”

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