- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

The confrontation between the West and Russia escalated Wednesday as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a missile defense deal with Poland and the Kremlin suspended military cooperation with NATO’s member countries.

Russia repeated threats of military action against Warsaw for its cooperation with the U.S.

Amid the saber rattling reminiscent of the Cold War era, President Bush denounced Russia for putting the small nation of Georgia “under siege” and called on Moscow to accelerate a promised withdrawal of military forces from the Caucasus country.

The Russians, meanwhile, announced that they would cease all military cooperation with NATO, which includes the United States and most European nations.

The Norwegian Defense Ministry said Moscow had conveyed its intention to stop working with NATO, although Russia’s envoy to the organization said the “freeze” was temporary.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday renewed threats against Poland for agreeing to host 10 interceptor missile launchers from the United States.

The ministry released a statement saying the missile system would not have “any target other than Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles,” and that it would be “broadened and modernized.”

“In this case Russia will be forced to react, and not only through diplomatic” channels, the statement said.

A Russian general said last week that cooperation with the U.S. on missile defense made Poland a “target” for attack, possibly even with nuclear weapons.

The Kremlin has long been angered by NATO’s expansion into former Soviet republics and satellites.

Encouraged by the Bush administration, Georgia and Ukraine sought access to NATO’s membership process at a summit in April, but Germany and France, concerned about Russian opposition, blocked the invitation.

Miss Rice called Russia’s threats against Poland “pathetic” and said such talk “borders on the bizarre.”

“The United States would never permit an attack on the territory of an ally under Article 5,” she said, referring to the portion of the NATO treaty that guarantees mutual defense.

Ivo Daalder, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the escalation was worrisome but not at a crisis point.

“Things are moving in a bad direction, but we’re not on the brink of a hot war or even a new cold war,” he said. “We live in an interconnected world in which it is very difficult for one side to completely disconnect itself from the other.”

At the same time, Mr. Daalder criticized Miss Rice for going to Georgia, Belgium and Poland without laying out U.S. concerns directly to Moscow. “It’s time for communication, not confrontation,” he said.

Miss Rice has said repeatedly that the missile defense system, which includes radar in the Czech Republic, is not aimed at Russia but is intended to protect against ballistic missile attacks from rogue countries such as Iran.

However, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that the missile deal would “create mistrust and spur an arms race on the continent and beyond its borders.”

Miss Rice said in an interview with CNN that confrontation with Russia is not the issue. “That is a separate matter,” she said. “The Russians need to be out of Georgia. They are the ones who brutally attacked a small neighbor.”

Russian forces have remained in Georgia, a former Soviet republic, despite U.S. and European demands for withdrawal from Georgia and two disputed regions in the country’s north.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who promised that troops would exit a week ago, told French President Nicolas Sarkozy by phone that Russia would complete its withdrawal by Friday. But Russian troops on Wednesday built guard posts only 30 miles from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

“For nearly two weeks, the world has watched Georgia’s young democracy come under siege,” Mr. Bush said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Orlando, Fla.

“Both the size and pace of the withdrawal needs to increase, and needs to increase sooner rather than later,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. “I don’t think they need any more additional time.”

Miss Rice could barely contain sarcasm.

“The Russian president is beginning to sound like a broken record,” she said. “First, his troops were going to be out on Monday, then his troops were going to be out on Wednesday, now his troops are going to be out on Friday. I’m beginning to wonder if the Russian president is ever going to keep his word, or can he keep his word, or what is going on there?”

Tropical Storm Fay continued to hover off the Florida coast as Mr. Bush spoke, delivering 50 mph winds, but the president and his press contingent were able to fly into and out of Orlando without incident.

Mr. Bush said he and his staff had “watched [the storm] very carefully,” and thanked the VFW members for being there “in spite of the weather.”

Mr. Bush traveled to New Orleans in the afternoon to highlight recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina, on the eve of the storm’s third anniversary next week.

But it was the situation in Eastern Europe that continued to dominate.

Five days of fighting between Russia and Georgia ignited Aug. 7 after Russia responded to Georgian artillery fire in South Ossetia by sending troops into the breakaway region and then into Georgia itself.

A top Russian military official said Wednesday that troops were continuing to withdraw in the disputed enclave of South Ossetia.

But Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the general staff, said the Russian army would set up checkpoints inside Georgian territory, on the edge of a “security zone” outside South Ossetia.

Gen. Nogovitsyn, in comments distributed to reporters by a U.S. public relations firm, said that 272 Russian soldiers, whom he called “peacekeepers,” would man 18 checkpoints.

He also said that Russians would forbid Georgian airplanes from flying in the buffer zone.

In Abkhazia, the separatist parliament and president issued an appeal asking Russia to recognize the disputed enclave’s independence, while the leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, told Interfax news agency that his separatist region would do likewise.

Both regions are planning pro-independence demonstrations for Thursday.

Mr. Bush has said that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are “part of Georgia,” adding that “the world must stand for freedom” in the former Soviet republic.

  • This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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