MOSCOW (Reuters)–Russia unleashed its most aggressive rhetoric yet at its tiny neighbor Georgia on Thursday–accusing it of arming nationalist militants–helping Chechen rebels and plotting a new war against separatists.
Moscow did not mention Washington in the broadside–but the foreign ministry’s accusations also amounted to a warning shot across the bows of the United States–which is sending military instructors to help train and arm the Georgian army.
The statement was prompted by the brief kidnapping and release on Tuesday of four Russian peacekeepers from the unstable border area that divides Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region from the rest of the country. The Russian soldiers were exchanged for Georgians held prisoner by separatists.
Russia’s commen’s on Abkhazia – among the most tense of the unresolved ethnic conflicts simmering on the ex-Soviet Union’s fringes – have grown ever more alarmist in the weeks since Washington promised Georgia military aid.
Abkhaz separatists–who drove Georgian forces and some 250,000 ethnic Georgian civilians out of their Black Sea province in a 1992-93 war–fear a US trained and equipped Georgian army may be turned against them.
"Georgia has clearly taken the course of seeking to prepare its own and world public opinion for new attempts to resolve the Abkhazia issue by force," the Russian ministry statement said.
It accused Georgia of arming the "White Legions" and "Forest Brotherhood" nationalist militia–which have clashed with Russian peacekeepers and Abkhaz forces and which Moscow said were behind this week’s kidnapping.
"(The militia) don’t find their weapons in the forest," the Russian statement said. "The office doors of top Georgian officials are open for them."
It also said Georgian officials had helped Chechen guerrilla leader Ruslan Gelayev launch a raid on Abkhazia last year–and said Tbilisi had turned a blind eye to "Chechen terrorists” who shot down a UN helicopter–killing nine people.
"Such hypocrisy on the part of Tbilisi makes one doubt its sincerity–not only in the fight against terrorism–but also on the issue of a political settlement in Abkhazia," it said.
"Tbilisi must be held to full account for the consequences of such provocations and irresponsible actions."
Russia tacitly backed the Abkhaz in the war and now maintains 1,500 peacekeepers in the Abkhaz border zone. In past weeks the separatist leadership has asked for Russian support and enjoyed considerable backing among Russian politicians.
Anri Dzhergeniya–the prime minister of the unrecognized Abkhaz separatist government–flew to Moscow on Thursday. RIA news agency quoted him as saying Georgia was carrying out "an unofficial–secret mobilization."
Russia’s political elite–which shrugged off the deployment of thousands of US troops in other ex-Soviet states as part of the post-September 11 war in Afghanistan–initially responded with fury at news a few dozen Americans were going to Georgia.
Some Russian politicians even suggested establishing formal links with Abkhazia–a move that risked breaking the ultimate post-Soviet taboo of redrawing frontiers.
President Vladimir Putin eventually said the American mission in Georgia was "no tragedy" for Russia and reconfirmed Moscow’s support for Georgia’s borders. But many saw his remarks as a reluctant acceptance of something he was powerless to stop.