Defying the United States and Europe, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced Tuesday he has signed a decree recognizing the independence of the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"This is not an easy choice, but this is the only chance to save people's lives," Mr. Medvedev said in a televised address a day after Russia's Kremlin-controlled parliament voted unanimously to support the diplomatic recognition.
Medvedev's declaration comes as Russian forces remain in Georgia after a war, staking out positions beyond the de facto borders of the separatist regions. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have effectively ruled themselves following wars with Georgia in the 1990s.
Russia's military presence seems likely to further weaken Georgia, a Western ally in the Caucasus region, a major transit corridor for energy supplies to Europe, and a strategic crossroads.
Russian tanks and troops drove deep into the US ally's territory in a five-day war this month that Moscow saw as a justified response to a threat in its backyard. The West viewed it as a repeat of Soviet-style intervention in its vassal states.
Medvedev said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had forced Russia's hand by launching an Aug. 7-8 overnight attack to seize control of South Ossetia by force. "Saakashvili chose genocide to fulfill his political plans," he said. "Georgia chose the least human way to achieve its goal – to absorb South Ossetia by eliminating a whole nation."
On the heels of Russia's first post-Soviet invasion of a foreign country, recognition was another stark demonstration of the Kremlin's determination to hold sway in lands where its clout is jeopardized by NATO's expansion and growing Western influence.
President Bush urged the Kremlin against it. "Georgia's territorial integrity and borders must command the same respect as every other nation's, including Russia's," he said late Monday. Vice President Dick Cheney is visiting Georgia next month to show supportn.
Georgia lashed out at Russia. The recognition has "no legal status," Georgia's state minister on reintegration, Timur Yakobashvili, told the AP.
Russia can expect "further diplomatic isolation" following the decision, said Masha Lipman, a liberal expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank. She noted that even Germany, which has maintained close ties with Russia even as Moscow's estrangement from other Western nations grew, had warned the Kremlin against formal recognition.