Russia vows “pragmatic” response to NATO expansion

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia would respond pragmatically to any further NATO expansion by strengthening its defenses and economic might, Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on Wednesday.

NATO will consider putting the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine on the path to membership at a summit in Bucharest this week despite Russian opposition.

“NATO expansion will not be left without a response,” ITAR-TASS news agency quoted Lavrov as telling the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. “But we will react pragmatically.”

Tass quoted him as saying the response would take the form of strengthened economic and defense potential, but gave no details. Moscow strongly opposes membership for Tbilisi and Kiev on grounds that NATO is intruding on its sphere of influence.

Lavrov told lawmakers Moscow would carefully consider a parliamentary resolution calling for the recognition of two breakaway Georgian regions but would also keep in mind its general commitment to the territorial integrity of states.

The Duma passed a resolution last week calling on Moscow to recognize the pro-Russian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia after a war in the 1990s.

“Certainly, the appeal to the president and the government on considering the appropriateness of recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia causes the greatest interest,” Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying.

He said this would be considered “most attentively, with all factors taken into account”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov used similar language in a teleconference on Monday. In remarks that appeared to rule out Russian recognition of the two regions, Peskov said Moscow would respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.

“We cannot ignore this opinion from the Duma. However foreign policy is determined by the president of the Russian Federation and the president has said that Russia stands for the territorial integrity of Georgia,” Peskov said.

Diplomats in Moscow have said Russia prefers to maintain the status quo in the South Caucasus.

Recognition of the two regions could create awkward precedents in Russia’s backyard, the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus. Leaving the conflict smoldering primarily hurts Georgia, whose pro-Western government is at odds with Moscow.

Lavrov said, however, Russia could look again at a ban on wine exports if Georgia agreed to reciprocal moves to improve relations. Russia imposed economic and travel sanctions on Georgia in October 2006 after a row over alleged spying.

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