Despite fierce opposition from Moscow, NATO began a month of military exercises in Georgia on Wednesday.
The exercises, criticized by Russia as a "provocation", overshadow relations between Russia and the transatlantic military alliance, which have been on the mend as the two sides last week resumed formal contact that had been frozen since the Caucasus war last year.
South Ossetia conflict
Georgia and Russia fought a five-day war in August, when Georgia attacked breakaway South Ossetia to retake the region which borders Russia. An angry Moscow sent in troops to drive out the Georgian forces.
Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Georgian breakaway region, as independent states two weeks after the conflict ended.
Russia has long accused NATO of providing Georgia with weapons and training its forces, while Georgia denounced Russia as an occupier and demanded the withdrawal of its troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But Georgia, which has been seeking NATO membership, also felt dissatisfaction with the alliance for delaying its admission to the Membership Action Plan, a key step for accession, and complained about getting little support from NATO during the conflict with Russia.
NATO foreign ministers suspended the NATO-Russia Council shortly after the conflict, and to beef up relations with Georgia, NATO established the NATO-Georgia Commission and donated economic assistance for reconstruction.
Spat over war games
The Georgian Defense Ministry said about 212 soldiers have arrived at the Vaziani military base to begin the exercises. An official opening ceremony will be held May 11.
The exercises, being held about 20 km east of Tbilisi, were originally scheduled to involve 1,300 soldiers from 19 NATO members and partner nations. However, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Serbia and Armenia have pulled out of the war games.
Russia has expressed strong objections to the exercises. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accused NATO of "muscle-flexing" and called the decision to continue with the drills "wrong and dangerous".
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, said the alliance was aggravating tensions by conducting the drills at a time when breakaway South Ossetia was to hold parliamentary elections. He urged the alliance to cancel the exercises, warning that Russia would take responsive measures if NATO did not review its plans.
NATO argued that the exercises were planned last year before the conflict between Georgia and Russia. In a goodwill gesture, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer invited Russia to observe the exercises. The invitation, however, was flatly rejected by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russian military commentator Victor Litovkin said the military exercises in Georgia pose no real threat to Russia, South Ossetia or Abkhazia, but they do bear profound political significance.
The exercises indicate that NATO will continue to support Georgia, to which the alliance has promised eventual membership, Litovkin said. He said the exercises also sent Moscow the message that NATO had no interest in its opinions.
The exercises have led to a new round of retaliation between NATO and Russia.
NATO expelled two Russian diplomats from its Brussels headquarters on April 29, the same day NATO and Russia resumed formal talks after a freeze of eight months. The two diplomats were declared personae non grata by NATO for alleged involvement in espionage.
Rogozin denied that the two were spying and said Moscow's response to the expulsions "will be clear and tough".
In an apparent response to the exercises, Russia signed border defense pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on April 30. Three days later, Russian guards started to protect the borders of the two regions.
Precisely when NATO began the military exercises on Wednesday, Russia expelled two Canadian diplomats working at the alliance's representative office in Moscow.
Moscow has also decided to postpone indefinitely the Russia-NATO Council's ministerial meeting, which was initially scheduled for May. It even threatened to stop its cooperation with NATO concerning Afghanistan and anti-piracy efforts.
Western analysts said Russia's sharp reaction to the exercises was totally understandable because south Caucasus is a flash point where the interests of Russia and NATO intertwine.
The tensions between NATO and Russia may last for awhile but analysts believe that Moscow will not take extreme measures because the exercise is a small-scale issue compared to the broader benefits of better ties with the West.
(Xinhua News Agency May 7, 2009)