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Russia says Georgia war stopped NATO expansion

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia (Reuters) - NATO would have expanded by now to admit ex-Soviet republics if Russia had not invaded Georgia in 2008 to defend a rebel region, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gestures during his meeting with disabled individuals at the Gorki presidential residence outside Moscow November 16, 2011. REUTERS/Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Files

Moscow has strongly opposed the expansion of the Western military alliance to include former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine.

NATO promised Georgia eventual membership at a summit in 2008, but enthusiasm for Tbilisi’s entry cooled after the brief war later that year, which saw Russian troops invade Georgia to protect Georgia’s tiny rebel region of South Ossetia.

“If you...had faltered back in 2008, the geopolitical situation would be different now,” Medvedev said in a speech to soldiers at a base in Vladikavkaz, just north of the Georgian border.

“And a number of countries which (NATO) tried to deliberately drag into the alliance, would have most likely already been part of it now.”

Despite the end of the Cold War, Russia has had numerous disagreements with NATO on missile defence, the Balkans and most recently Libya, where Moscow was sceptical of the alliance’s bombing campaign that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi.

“We abandoned direct competition (with NATO), but... we now have different visions of the solutions of a number of security issues,” Medvedev said.

Medvedev said Russia would soon announce measures it will take to respond to U.S. plans for a missile defence shield in Europe. Moscow says the shield could lead to a new arms race.

The president’s hawkish rhetoric comes ahead of a parliamentary election next month. Medvedev has been charged by his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with leading the ruling pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which has seen slipping approval ratings.

Putin, who steered Medvedev into office in 2008 months before the Georgia war, has announced plans to reclaim the presidency in an election next year.

Writing by Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Peter Graff