PRAGUE (Reuters) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Tuesday Russian behavior towards Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia had exacerbated tensions and she urged both sides to avoid provocative actions.
“Frankly, some of the things that Russia did over the last couple of months added to tensions in the region,” Rice said as she flew to Prague to sign an agreement on a missile defense system before traveling to Tbilisi later this week.
Rice said she was particularly troubled by Russian moves to establish semi-official links to the separatists in Abkhazia and its decision to send extra troops to the region without the consent of the Georgian government.
“Georgia is an independent state. It has to be treated like one. We have said that both Georgia and Russia need to avoid provocative behavior,” Rice told reporters.
“There have been a lot of incidents that have called into question people’s commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and I ant to make very clear that the United States’ commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity is very strong,” she said.
Georgia’s Western allies have warned Moscow it was stoking tensions in a part of the world that is emerging as a major transit route for oil exports.
A BP-led pipeline pumps about 1 million barrels a day of Caspian Sea crude through Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
Georgian forces were driven out of Abkhazia in a separatist war in the early 1990s.
Russia provides financial aid to the separatists and has peacekeepers in Abkhazia. Georgia accuses Moscow of trying to annex the impoverished Black Sea region.
While criticizing Russian actions toward Georgia, Rice sought to play down the idea that the United States and Russia are competing for influence in a region that the Soviet Union once dominated.
In many ways, Rice’s three-day trip — which will include a brief stop in former Warsaw Pact member Bulgaria to accept an award — illustrates the U.S. effort to deepen military and diplomatic ties with the former Soviet satellites despite Russian objections.
Moscow bitterly opposes U.S. plans to station radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland as part of a shield to protect the United States and its allies from the perceived threat of missile attack from countries such as Iran.
The Kremlin has also made no secret of its reluctance to see Georgia join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
The United States suffered a setback in April when NATO leaders rebuffed U.S. demands the ex-Soviet republic be put on an immediate path for membership but the Western security alliance made clear Georgia would one day join.
Rice said the United States remained committed to Georgia, and neighboring Ukraine, being offered a NATO Membership Action Plan, a path to possible entry into the alliance.
Rice sought to dispel the view that U.S.-Russian relations were marked by discord, noting that they have worked together to try to rein in North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs as well as on counter-terrorism and other issues.
“It would just be wrong to characterize it as a relationship that has been unremittingly hostile,” she said.