MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned NATO Friday that planned military exercises in neighboring Georgia were an attempt at muscle-flexing by the Western alliance that could hinder efforts to mend ties.
Russia fought a brief war with Georgia last year and is vexed by what it describes as NATO support for the ex-Soviet state, a crucial transit route for Caspian Sea oil and gas to Europe long controlled by Moscow.
NATO says it does not understand why Moscow is upset by the long-planned exercises involving 1,300 troops from 19 countries from May 6 to June 1.
“This is the wrong decision, a dangerous decision,” Medvedev told a news conference at his state residence outside Moscow.
“Decisions of this kind are aimed at muscle-flexing,” he said. “Such decisions are disappointing and do not facilitate the resumption of full scale contacts between the Russian Federation and NATO.”
Tensions over Georgia have been running high since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s failed bid to retake the pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia in August.
Russia repelled the attack but provoked international condemnation for driving its troops further into Georgian territory and then recognizing South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states.
Georgia’s Foreign Ministry accused Russia of “yet another undisguised attempt to impose its will on the international community and to interfere in the internal affairs of the sovereign state of Georgia.”
“Russia’s actions clearly indicate that its aggression against Georgia has not come to a halt for one day,” it said in a statement.
Abkhazia’s separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh said the region was reinforcing its border with Georgia and confirmed earlier announced plans to host a Russian naval and an air base, adding that the deal with Moscow would be signed “fairly soon.”
“Because Western nations will now hold their exercises — allegedly to support Georgia — we will hold similar exercises (with Russia) in response, both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Bagapsh told a news conference in Moscow.
“Georgia must decide for itself how it wants to exist — at the epicenter of fighting or as a stable and peaceful state.”
NATO cut all formal ties with Russia as a result of Moscow’s intervention in Georgia, but earlier this year they agreed to resume relations.
NATO says the exercises, to be held 20 km (12 miles) east of the capital Tbilisi, will be based on a fictitious U.N.-mandated, NATO-led crisis response operation and will not involve heavy weaponry.
“We will follow what happens there in the most thorough manner and make certain decisions if needs be,” Medvedev told reporters.
But NATO officials and diplomats in Brussels expressed surprise at Moscow’s sharp reaction to the exercises, which were planned last year.
Russia was fully informed and as a NATO partner country had been free to participate, they said.
NATO officials said Russia had not raised the matter in a meeting which set the date for resuming the NATO-Russia Council, a forum for consultation, consensus-building and joint action on security issues.
They said Medvedev’s comments, following earlier Russian complaints this week, could be intended to deflect attention from much larger military maneuvers Russia has been conducting off the coast of Georgia.
The Pentagon Thursday said that Russian objections were nothing new and Georgia has insisted the exercises go ahead. NATO member Italy sought to allay Russian fears Friday.
“There is no desire by NATO to irritate the Russian Federation,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Reuters. “We are not interfering or intervening in any way.”
One NATO diplomat said it was difficult to predict how tough a line Russia would take on the NATO exercises in Georgia, saying, ahead of this weekend’s Orthodox Easter: “It could be something that will disappear with the Easter eggs.”
Russian officials have said NATO exercises indicate Western support for Saakashvili, who has faced days of protests by thousands of demonstrators who say he should resign for blundering into a war with Russia and crushing freedoms.
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Phil Stewart in Rome and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow, edited by Ralph Boulton