UNITED NATIONS | Russia on Tuesday recognized the “independence” of two breakaway Georgian regions, responding to what Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called “a completely new reality” and expanding de facto Russian territorial control for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The announcement, two weeks after Georgia sent soldiers to one of the enclaves - South Ossetia - came at a nadir in Russian relations with the West and triggered a fresh round of condemnation from the United States, Georgia and European countries. The condemnation appeared to have little impact on Moscow.
“We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a Cold War,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared after announcing the Kremlin’s decision. He also promised an unspecified military response to a U.S. missile defense system in Europe. Russia has already suspended contacts with NATO.
“The peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have several times spoken out at referendums in favor of independence for their republics,” Mr. Medvedev said in an address to the nation. “It is our understanding that after [the bloodshed] they have the right to decide their destiny by themselves.”
In New York, Mr. Churkin said Georgia’s initial use of force in South Ossetia justified the move and that Russia’s embrace of the breakaway enclaves “showed so much patience.”
“They have been urging us to recognize them for years,” Mr. Churkin said.
How independent the enclaves will be is questionable.
While most Russian troops have withdrawn from Georgia, hundreds remain, ostensibly as peacekeepers, in what Russia calls a “zone of responsibility” between the administrative borders of Georgia and South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it would immediately begin to negotiate “treaties of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance” with the enclaves.
Mr. Churkin denied that the action had anything to do with NATO’s recognition of Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian republic whose independence Russia has opposed.
Mr. Medvedev’s announcement sparked scenes of jubilation in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said the Russian announcement had “no legal force” and restated his country’s intention to join NATO.
The Bush administration, apparently surprised by the speed of the Russian action, said it would veto any effort to obtain international recognition for the territories.
“Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a part of the internationally recognized borders of Georgia and it’s going to remain so,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
President Bush called the Russian move “irresponsible.”
By Tuesday afternoon, the guided missile destroyer USS McFaul and other naval vessels carrying relief supplies arrived at the Georgian port Batumi. Moscow has accused the United States of using the aid as a fig leaf for a planned military build-up in the region.
The White House also announced that Vice President Dick Cheney will visit Georgia and two other nervous Russian neighbors, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, next week.
France, the current head of the European Union, condemned Russia’s actions as “contrary to the principles of Georgia´s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” as recognized by the U.N. Charter and several Security Council resolutions.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s response was milder.
“The secretary-general regrets that ongoing efforts to find a common solution on the way forward in the crisis in Georgia within the Security Council may be complicated.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.