DUSHANBE/PARIS (Reuters) - Russia faced increased diplomatic isolation over its military action against Georgia on Thursday, with its Asian allies failing to offer support and France saying EU leaders were considering sanctions.
Moscow accused the West of heightening tension by a naval build-up in the Black Sea, and said talk of punishing Russia for recognising the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions was the product of a “sick” and “confused” imagination.
Russia’s powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in a CNN interview he suspected someone in the United States had provoked the Georgia conflict to make the situation more tense and create “a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of U.S. president.” He did not elaborate.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Putin’s allegations were “patently false” and the U.S. State Department said it was “ludicrous” for the Russians to say they were not responsible for what had happened in Georgia.
Moscow has defied pressure from the United States and European powers to pull out of Georgia and looked east to its Asian allies, including China, for support at a regional summit.
The grouping, meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, repeated a regular call for the “respect of territorial integrity” and did not follow Russia’s lead on recognising the two breakaway regions of Georgia.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russia’s closest ex-Soviet ally, said the Kremlin “had no other moral choice but to” recognise the Georgian regions. Russian agencies quoted his ambassador to Moscow as saying Minsk could soon follow suit, but the embassy later said his comments had been misinterpreted.
The crisis flared early this month when Georgian forces tried to retake the separatist province of South Ossetia and Russia launched an overwhelming counter-attack.
Russian forces swept the Georgian army out of the rebel region and are still occupying some areas of Georgia proper. On Tuesday Moscow announced that it was recognising South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states.
The United States and Europe have demanded Russia respect a French-brokered ceasefire and withdraw all its troops from Georgia, including a disputed buffer zone imposed by Moscow.
France, the current EU president, has called a meeting of EU leaders on Monday to discuss the Georgian crisis, and its Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters that “sanctions are being considered and many other means as well.”
But diplomats said that, though EU nations were united in condemning Russia’s recognition move, they were mostly reluctant to impose tough sanctions on Moscow.
“I do not think there is unanimous appetite for it (imposing sanctions on Russia),” said one EU diplomat after a meeting on Thursday of ambassadors from the bloc’s 27 states.
The United States, Georgia’s closest Western ally, said it was premature to say whether it would consider sanctions against Russia, White House spokeswoman Perino told reporters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kouchner had already suggested Russia might attack Moldova, Ukraine and the Crimea, and added: “That is a sick imagination, and probably that applies to sanctions as well. I think it is a demonstration of complete confusion.”
Moscow expressed alarm at a naval build-up in the Black Sea, an area normally dominated by its southern fleet, and Putin said he suspected U.S. nationals had been involved on the Georgian side during battles with Russian forces.
“It that was the case, then the recent events could have a American domestic political dimension,” he said in the CNN interview, part of which was broadcast on Russian state television.
“If that is true, if that is confirmed, then that’s really bad. It’s very dangerous and a mistaken policy,” he said.
Russia’s deputy chief of the General Staff, Col-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, showed a news briefing an enlarged colour photocopy of the passport of U.S. citizen Michael Lee White, born in 1967. He said it had been retrieved by Moscow’s forces after a battle with Georgian special forces.
The United States has sent several warships to the zone, apparently to deliver aid, including the flagship of its Sixth Fleet, the sophisticated joint command ship Mount Whitney.
Moscow has responded by sending the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, to the Abkhaz port of Sukhumi.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev failed to secure support for his action at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a group linking Moscow with China and four ex-Soviet Central Asian states.
In its final declaration the grouping said “to rely exclusively on the use of force has no prospects and prevents finding a comprehensive resolution of local conflicts”.
That phrase, and a call for respect of “the unity of the state and its territorial integrity”, regularly feature in SCO statements to take into account Chinese sensitivities. It is also in line with Russia’s reading of the Georgian conflict as Moscow says Tbilisi used force to solve a political problem.
On the Georgian conflict the summit’s closing statement added: “The SCO states express grave concern in connection with the recent tensions around the South Ossetian issue and urge the sides to solve existing problems peacefully, through dialogue, and to make efforts facilitating reconciliation and talks.”
Even China, which often sides with Russia in diplomatic disputes, issued a veiled criticism of Moscow’s actions, saying it was “concerned about the latest changes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia” and calling for dialogue to resolve the issue.
Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels and Christian Lowe in Moscow