MOSCOW Russia has hastened Georgia's march toward membership in NATO by going to war with it over its breakaway province of South Ossetia, a senior U.S. diplomat said on Saturday.
"I think what Russia has done now is the strongest catalyst it could have created to get Georgia in NATO," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, American envoy to the Caucasus, told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio.
"This is what is going to happen now. Georgia is going to accelerate its march toward NATO and, I hope, to an action plan in December."
The 26-member alliance, which already includes the three former Soviet Baltic states, will convene in December to decide whether to grant Georgia a road map to accession, known as a Membership Action Plan.
NATO has promised Georgia, which Russia's considers part of its traditional sphere of influence, that it will one day be admitted to the alliance. But opposition from some European member states has prevented it setting any timeframe.
Russia sent its troops into Georgia to defeat an attempt by the country's pro-Western leadership to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Moscow says it acted in its role as a regional peacekeeper to protect South Ossetia, most of whose people have been given Russian passports. But Georgia and its Western allies accuse Russia of going beyond that aim by pushing deep into Georgian territory.
"WE NEED GEORGIA IN NATO"
"Russia has shown exactly why Georgia needs to be in NATO ... Russia did not lift a finger against the Baltic states once they entered NATO. It would not lift a finger against Ukraine if Ukraine were in NATO. The same goes for Georgia," Bryza told Ekho Moskvy.
"We need Georgia and Ukraine in NATO to deter these kinds of tragic military adventures on the part of Russia when it feels it has some room to potentially block the accession of these countries to NATO."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said there is no plan to accelerate NATO's debate on whether to bring Georgia into the alliance.
Bryza said Georgia was not ready to join yet, but an action plan would help it prepare.
He also said Russia's peacekeeping role in Georgia would have to change in the light of the war.
Russia agreed to a French-brokered ceasefire deal which allows it to maintain a longstanding peacekeeping force in South Ossetia, and take "additional security measures" until international security measures are worked out.
"I'll bet the Russian government will want to keep some troops in those areas. We are not in favor of that and I don't know how we can call them peacekeepers," Bryza said. "They are parties to the conflict now."
Russia has built checkpoints as much as 12 km (7 miles) from the administrative border with South Ossetia, inside Georgia proper, and says it plans to continue patrolling Georgia's main Black Sea port, Poti.
The deputy chief of Russia's General Staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said on Saturday that Russian peacekeepers were acting in line with the ceasefire agreement.
(Reporting by Melissa Akin)