Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says Russia recognizes Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent.
Meanwhile, Moscow's relationship with NATO took a turn for the worse after a top envoy curtailed cooperation with the alliance and warships from both sides continued to gather on the Black Sea.
The Russian pledge came after a resolution calling on President Medvedev to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia sailed through both houses of the Russian parliament on August 25.
Medvedev said his decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which he called on other countries to do, as well, "was not an easy choice, but it is the only possibility to save the lives of the people."
(In Pictures: Reaction To Russian Recognition)
Residents of Abkhazia fired into the air, opened bottles of champagne, and wept on hearing the news. In Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, office workers spilled into the streets.
"We feel happy. We all have tears in our eyes. We feel pride for our people," Aida Gubaz, a 38-year-old lawyer, told Reuters. "Everything we went through, now we are getting our reward."
In the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, some 500 people gathered in the central square to celebrate. The air was filled with the deafening roar of people firing Kalashnikov rifles and antique hunting rifles, Reuters reports. Other people were waving the flags of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, hugging each other, and chanting, "Long live South Ossetia."
The West reacted harshly to the Russian president's decision.
U.S. President George W. Bush condemned the move, calling it an "irresponsible decision" and warning Moscow that it was escalating tensions.
Bush said the decision was inconsistent with the French-brokered cease-fire agreement Georgia and Russia signed earlier this month, as well as UN Security Council resolutions confirming the two areas are part of Georgia.
"We expect Russia to live up to its international commitments, reconsider this irresponsible decision, and follow the approach set out in the six-point [cease-fire] agreement," he said in a written statement. "Russia's action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations. In accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions that remain in force, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are within the internationally recognized borders of Georgia, and they must remain so."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel termed the decision "unacceptable" during a speech in Tallinn.
"The fact that yesterday the [Russian State] Duma and today the Russian president recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- the Russian president signed it just now -- is inconsistent with my, and I think our common, understanding of the principle of territorial integrity and the fundamental international rights of nations and is therefore absolutely unacceptable," Merkel said.
The OSCE's chairman in office, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, also condemned Russia's recognition.
Popular Russian Support
But such rebukes will likely fall on deaf ears in Russia, Aleksei Malashenko, a Caucasus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL's Russian Service today.
"It is absolutely obvious that Russian society supports this recognition. First of all, the country was being prepared for this position for a very long time, and the propaganda -- especially the mass media and the campaigns that have been waged -- has turned out to be rather successful," Malashenko said. "The primary focus was made on the strength and independence of Russia, which can do whatever it pleases, even anything foolish."
The issue of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity has been the main bone of contention between Moscow and the West following the cease-fire that halted the brief war that broke out between Georgia and Russia after Georgian forces invaded South Ossetia on August 7 after days of exchanging mortar and small-arms fire.
In keeping with the agreement, Moscow withdrew most of the forces it sent into the country during five days of fighting, but angered the West by retaining a peacekeeping presence in strategic locations within Georgia proper, including some outside the "buffer zone."
Moscow's rapidly deteriorating relations with NATO are also being watched closely.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced last week that the alliance could not conduct "business as usual" with Moscow "as long as Russia does not commit to the principles upon which we agreed to base our relationship." Meetings of the NATO-Russia Council were suspended, and a new NATO-Georgia Commission was established.
In response, President Medvedev said during a meeting with Russia's NATO ambassador Dmitry Rogozin on August 25 that severing ties with the alliance would have "no real effect on us" and said Moscow was prepared to look at any solution "up to and including breaking off relations in full."
Calling de Hoop Scheffer's remarks last week "unacceptable, dishonest, hypocritical, and deeply cynical," Rogozin said the NATO secretary-general's planned visit to Moscow on October 17 will be postponed "until we reach a new quality of mutual understanding."
Rogozin also said NATO ships would no longer be allowed to visit Russian ports, joint military exercises and training courses would be suspended, as would the exchange of scientists and experts in military and related research.
"As for the political dialogue, we are not giving it up. At least contacts on the level of ambassadors will continue in one way or another. It is necessary. Neither do we deny the importance of the Russia-NATO Council's program for the next year," Rogozin said.
Rogozin also said that, while Russia would watch how NATO's operations in Afghanistan unfolds, it would be "premature at this time" to exclude cooperation in that country.
Warships On Black Sea
Tensions have heightened further between the two powers with the growing presence of U.S. and Russian warships on the Black Sea.
The Kremlin has harshly criticized what it considers a NATO naval buildup under the guise of providing humanitarian aid. Russian naval officials have placed the number of NATO warships operating in or heading to the Black Sea at nine, including a Polish minesweeper, and German and Spanish frigates.
The first NATO ship to enter the region, the U.S. destroyer "USS McFaul," has been stationed off the Georgian coast since August 24.
Earlier, reports cited the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Georgia as saying U.S. vessels would attempt to deliver aid to Poti, which still harbors a Russian military presence despite being outside the cease-fire's "buffer zone."
But spokesman Stephen Guice later told AFP that "we cannot now confirm that U.S. ships will be traveling to Poti."
NATO officials have acknowledged the concentration of its vessels in the Black Sea for planned maneuvers off the coast of Bulgaria and Romania.
The deputy head of the Russian military's General Staff, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, who has previously questioned the nature of the U.S. aid deliveries, said the "excessive level of activity of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea...is a cause for bewilderment."
Nogovitsyn also said ships of Russia's Black Sea Fleet dropped anchor today off the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi, with the task of taking "personnel, armaments, and military gear aboard and to transport them to Russia."
He said the fleet's flagship, the guided-missile cruiser "Moskva," about twice the size of the "USS McFaul," would head a squadron of as many as 18 Russian warships in routine naval exercises on the sea.
Reaction To Russian Recognition
Reaction to Russia's Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia View