Russia’s president said today he was ready for the start of a new Cold War, as he set tensions with the West soaring by recognizing the independence of two breakaway republics inside Georgia.
“We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a Cold War,” said Dimitri Medvedev, after ordering his foreign ministry to start work on establishing diplomatic ties with the secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The move brought instant condemnation from America, Britain, France, Germany and other Western countries.
President Bush appealed to the Kremlin to “reconsider this irresponsible decision.”
Speaking from his farm in Crawford Texas, he said: “The United States condemns the decision by the Russian President to recognize as independent states the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said it was “unjustifiable and unacceptable.” Bernard Kouchner gave warning that “we face a war and we do not want it”.
Mr Medvedev’s remarks were the first time a leader on either side has openly raised the spectre of a return to the decades-long power struggle. “But we don’t want it and in this situation everything depends on the position of our partners,” said Mr Medvedev, whose troops still occupy some positions inside Georgia, including in the vital port hub of Poti on the Black Sea.
Georgia has repeatedly called for the West to stand firm against Russia despite the many risk of a renewed Cold War. In a show of solidarity, Dick Cheney is to arrive for a visit next week, while today Cindy McCain, wife of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, made a trip to meet with refugees from the conflict.
But the message that Russia is not playing games appeared to be sinking in when a US diplomat in Tblisi first announced that two US Navy missile guided warships would be docking at Poti, then quickly retracted the statement. The USS McFaul had been planning to offload humanitarian despite the Russian military presence in the port, the diplomat said.
Mr Medvedev said that the port of Poti was open to shipping but accused the Americans of trying to smuggle weapons to the Georgians. “And what the Americans call humanitarian cargoes – of course, they are bringing in weapons.”
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, accused Washington of “battleship diplomacy” and insisted the presence of the warships “does not make the situation more stable”.
Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, declared that Russia’s backing for the separatists “illegal,” and accused Russia of looking for any excuse to provoke Georgia and allow Russia’s huge military machine to roll back into his country.
He said Russian forces were building up in Akhalgori, a small town inside South Ossetia just 20 miles north of Tblisi, from where they could encircle the capital like the Serbs did Sarajevo in the Bosnian war. Georgia also accuses Russia of forcing residents to take Russian passports in an effort to bolster the separatist cause.
Remnants of Georgia’s crushed security forces were manning makeshift checkpoints on the road to Akhalgori, while just a few hundred metres away South Ossetian paramilitaries blocked the road, refusing entry to all but locals, a mixture of South Ossetians and Georgians.
“This is South Ossetia,” said the commander, referring to Akhalgori by its Soviet-era name, Leningori. A road sign with the town’s Georgian name lay crushed by the roadside, near a militia armoured vehicle.
“The border is three kilometers from here,” the commander said, pointing beyond the Georgian checkpoints. “We are going to start to build control of the territory.”
Later, a Russian army helicopter swooped low over the Georgian forces and ordered them to withdraw. The Georgians, with no air support and under strict orders from the president not ignite a new war by firing at Russian helicopters flying in their airspace, complied.
The United Nations refugee agency voiced concern at reports of “marauding militias” and lawlessness in the buffer zone that Russian has established along the border with South Ossetia.