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Russia Says NATO Exercises In Georgia Are Provocation

Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin (file photo)
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia has called on NATO to cancel or postpone planned military exercises in Georgia that it said were "a provocation."

"This is absurd and a provocation," Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told Reuters by telephone. "I have asked the NATO postpone these exercises or to cancel them."

NATO announced on April 15 it would hold military exercises next month in Georgia, a former Soviet republic promised eventual alliance membership but whose territory was invaded by Russia last August.

Russia considers Georgia part of its traditional sphere of influence. Russia invaded Georgia to defeat an attempt by its pro-Western leadership to retake the breakaway South Ossetia region.

NATO's announcement of the exercises, which will involve 1,300 troops from 19 countries, comes at a time when it is seeking to rebuild ties with Russia damaged as a result of Moscow's intervention in Georgia.

"Before we restored military cooperation between Russia and NATO, we did not want there to be military exercises with foreign forces held near our borders," Rogozin said.

He said there was no written pledge to this effect from NATO, but it was clearly understood by both sides: "This was obvious," he said.

Rogozin rejected NATO's argument that the exercises were planned last year before the war in Georgia.

"The fact that they were planned a long time ago is inappropriate because a war is a force majeure," he said. "To hold military exercises in a country where a war has just ended, it is impossible."

An alliance statement said planning for the May 6-June 1 exercises began early last year, months before the war in Georgia.

Holding the exercises in Georgia will emphasize NATO solidarity with the country, which was promised eventual membership of the alliance last year -- a move which greatly angered Moscow.

NATO has since made clear membership for Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, is a long way off given concerns among some European countries, including France and Germany, about the effect on relations with Moscow.

The alliance has stopped short of offering either country formal routes to membership but has launched long-term programs to encourage necessary reforms.

NATO said the exercises would be held 20 kilometers east of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and were aimed at improving coordination between NATO members and their partner countries.

"The scenario is based on a fictitious United Nations-mandated, NATO-led crisis-response operation," it said.

Moscow says it acted last August in its role as a regional peacekeeper to protect South Ossetia, most of whose people have been given Russian passports.

But Georgia and its Western allies accused Russia of going beyond that aim by pushing deep into Georgian territory.