Russia demands NATO call off exercises in Georgia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia demanded on Thursday that NATO call off planned military exercises in Georgia, saying they could undermine its efforts to rebuild ties with the Western alliance.

A poster in support of Georgia's integration into NATO is seen in central Tbilisi, January 27, 2009. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

Ex-Soviet Georgia has become a focus of tension between the West and Russia, which sees it as part of its sphere of influence. NATO’s offer of eventual membership for Georgia has angered Moscow, which sent troops into Georgia last August.

“This is absurd and a provocation,” Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told Reuters by telephone. “I have asked the NATO secretary postpone these exercises or to cancel them.”

NATO says the exercises, from May 6 to June 1, will involve 1,300 troops from 19 countries. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the exercises would not help efforts to restore stability in the restive Caucasus region, Interfax news agency reported.

Moscow says NATO’s eastward expansion is a threat to its security, and that the military support given by NATO members to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili encouraged him to start last year’s war.

Georgia’s attempt to retake the pro-Moscow breakaway South Ossetia region prompted Russia to send in its tanks, which pushed to within 45 km (30 miles) of the capital, Tbilisi.

Georgia’s minister for reintegration, Temur Iakobashvili, insisted that the NATO exercises would go ahead “as planned.”

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman was dismissive of Russia’s objections. “I don’t think Russia’s ever been particularly fond of NATO exercises,” he said on Thursday.

NATO has made clear that membership for Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, is a long way off given concerns among some European countries, including France and Germany, about the effect on relations with Moscow.

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NATO cut its formal ties with Russia as a result of Moscow’s intervention in Georgia, but earlier this year they agreed to resume full-scale relations.

“Before we restored military cooperation between Russia and NATO, we did not want there to be military exercises with foreign forces held near our borders,” Rogozin said.

He said there had been no written pledge to this effect from NATO, but that “this was obvious.”

He rejected NATO’s argument that the exercises were planned last year, before the war in Georgia.

“A war is a ‘force majeure’,” he said. “To hold military exercises in a country where a war has just ended is impossible.”

Rogozin also said the war games could be exploited by Saakashvili in his stand-off with the opposition, which has held a series of major protests in recent days.

“To hold exercises on Georgian territory could be used by Saakashvili against the opposition, or by the opposition against Saakashvili,” Rogozin said. “In either case, the holding of military exercises is inappropriate.”

NATO says the exercises, to be held 20 km (12 miles) east of Tbilisi, are benign, and will be based on a fictitious U.N.-mandated, NATO-led crisis response operation.

“There should really be no element of surprise for anyone,” said NATO spokesman Robert Pszczel. “There is no heavy armor involved at all, it’s just people.”

Pszczel said Russia and NATO were progressing in efforts to boost ties, noting that the NATO-Russia Council, which groups the 28 NATO nations and Russia, will on April 29 hold its first formal ambassador-level meeting since the war in Georgia.

Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Niko Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi and Washington bureau; Editing by Kevin Liffey