Russia-Georgia tensions escalate over breakaway republic

The reported downing of two unmanned Georgian spy drones over Abkhazia come as both sides accuse each other of preparing for war.

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The reported downing of two more Georgian spy planes over the breakaway republic of Abkhazia on Sunday has escalated tensions between Georgia and neighboring Russia. Each country accuses the other of preparing for war over the tiny territory. Last week Russia sent extra peacekeepers to the border between Georgia and Abkhazia, which is seeking to emulate Kosovo by declaring full independence.

Georgia fought a brief war against Abkhazia in the early 1990s, and Russian officials have warned that Georgia may try to use force again to assert its claim. Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze denied this and dismissed Abkhazia's claim to have shot down two unmanned Georgian drones over the weekend. He told Reuters that Georgia was interested in economic development, not war, and in turn accused Russia of stirring tensions by supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway state.

Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti reports that Abkhazia is seeking Russian security protection. In a Russian newspaper interview published Tuesday, the breakaway state's foreign minister said Russia should "bring our territory under its military control" in return for security guarantees. However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said no such discussions were under way.

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Two weeks ago, Georgia said a Russian warplane had shot down another reconnaissance aircraft over Abkhazia and showed what it said was dramatic video footage of the incident. Russia denied its involvement and said the Georgian drone was violating a prior UN cease-fire accord. The spat highlighted a foreign-policy debate in Moscow over how to tackle its pro-Western neighbors, reported The Christian Science Monitor. Russia fears the advance of NATO to its borders as a security challenge that needs a firm response. But some analysts caution that overreacting may alienate neighboring ex-Soviet states further and force them into the arms of Western powers.

Last month, Russia established legal ties with Abkhazia and has issued Russian passports to many residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, stoking Georgian claims of annexation of its territory. However, Russia has stopped short of formally recognizing the two regions' independence, a move that would badly damage ties with the West, says the Associated Press.

Bloomberg says that Russia's foreign ministry recently accused its neighbor of girding for war and says Georgia has massed over 1,500 troops in the Kodori Gorge area of Abkhazia. A spokesman for Georgia's interior ministry said that 500 police officers have been mobilized, but no military personnel. Russia has as many as 3,000 peacekeepers in Abkhazia under a Commonwealth of Independent States mandate, up from around 2,000 previously.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the latest tensions come as Russia's new president Dmitry Medvedev prepares to take office Wednesday, replacing Vladimir Putin, who moves to become prime minister. Mr. Putin will continue to wield substantial power, both as prime minister and as chairman of the ruling United Russia party in parliament. However, Mr. Medvedev, who won a landslide election victory in March, will assume primary responsibility for Russia's foreign policy.

Moscow is preparing to stage a major military parade Friday featuring military hardware rarely seen in the post-Soviet era, says Agence France-Presse. Last week's May Day parade also evoked memories of cold war displays of weaponry, troops, and equipment. Mr. Putin denied that Friday's parade, part of inauguration celebrations for his successor, was saber-rattling intended to intimidate Russia's neighbors.

The US has voiced strong support for Georgia's territorial claims and expressed its concern over Russia's troop buildup in the region, reported Agence France-Presse. But the US preoccupation with the race for the White House is likely to blunt any coordinated response to further Russian provocations, argues Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who warns that opaque Russian politics make it difficult to judge Moscow's game plan. The repeated downing of Georgian spy planes and Russian warnings of a Georgian invasion may a deliberate attempt to create a causus belli against a pro-Western neighbor.

Writing in an opinion piece in the Moscow Times, Alexander Golts says that both Georgia and Russia have much to lose in a potential military clash and argues that their actions are signals aimed at the US and NATO. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is seeking NATO membership after failing to restore control over the breakaway territories and wants to portray Moscow as a menacing presence in the region, while Russia wants to flex its muscles in the Caucasus without becoming embroiled in war.

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