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Rice: Russia should back off regional threats
Georgia US Rice MOS 5445369
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Tbilisi airport, Wednesday, July 9, 2008. Rice began Wednesday a 17-hour visit to Georgia. The former Soviet state is in a violent standoff with Russia over a breakaway region called Abkhazia. - photo by Associated Press
    TBLISI, Georgia — Russia should back off its threats and intimidation of countries once under the Soviet clamp, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday as Cold War-tinged rhetoric escalated between Russia and the United States.
    Rice all but dared Moscow to critique her visit to this former Soviet republic locked in a shoving match with Russia that has seen Russia close its border with Georgia and impose trade and other restrictions.
    ‘‘I’m going to visit a friend and I don’t expect much comment about the United States going to visit a friend,’’ Rice said with an edge in her voice.
    Rice dined privately with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, a Russian nemesis, a day after Russia warned that it might resort to military means to counter a U.S. plan to base anti-missile defenses in the Czech Republic. Rice called the Russian response sad but predictable.
    The system would place radar interceptors in the Czech Republic, a former Soviet satellite, and missiles in Poland. Russia says that’s uncomfortably close, no matter the U.S. assurances that the planned shield is a hedge against Iran. Russia says the shield is unnecessary.
    Iran test-fired nine long- and medium-range missiles on Wednesday during war games that officials say are in response to U.S. and Israeli threats, state television reported.
    ‘‘I see it as evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one,’’ Rice said, ‘‘and that those who say that there is no Iranian missile threat against which we should be building missile defenses perhaps ought to talk to the Iranians.’’
    Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, told reporters Wednesday at the Group of Eight summit in Japan that the U.S. system ‘‘deeply distresses’’ Moscow and that Washington was engaging in ‘‘halfhearted negotiations that have come to nothing.’’
    He met with President Bush during the summit this week, and reported no progress on numerous issues that divide Russia and the U.S., especially missile defense. He also called the American president ‘‘George,’’ wished him happy birthday and pledged to continue talking.
    Medvedev told Bush that Russia would like ‘‘to normalize our relations with Georgia, but so far we do not see sufficient will’’ on the part of the Georgian leadership, said aide Sergei Prikhodko.
    Of chief concern to the United States now is the argument over Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia. Georgia accuses Moscow of encouraging separatist movements that are a legacy of the breakup of the Soviet Union; Moscow denies it but has increased ties to Abkhazia’s separatists, beefed up its peacekeeping force in the area and sent other troops in.
    ‘‘The United States considers the territorial integrity of Georgia to be inviolable,’’ Rice said. She said Russia has ‘‘not been helpful’’ in Abkhazia, where Georgia says Russia also shot down an unarmed Georgian drone.
    Abkhazian officials accuse Georgia of responsibility for violence in the Black Sea province, claiming the central government is preparing to attempt to take control of it by force. Georgian officials deny responsibility.
    Abkhazia broke from Georgian government control in a war in the early 1990s and has support from Moscow, which has granted most of its residents Russian citizenship.
    Persistent tension over the region has increased sharply in recent months as it has become a focus of Russia’s efforts to thwart the pro-Western Georgian president’s drive to bring his country into NATO.
    The West’s interest in the dispute is strong because Georgia sits at the crossroads for Central Asian and Caspian Sea oil and natural gas headed to Western markets.
    The Bush administration says Georgia is not blameless, but that Russia has taken the dispute into deeply dangerous territory. The tension could become a real shooting war if both sides are not careful, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.
    U.S. policy holds that Abkhazia is part of Georgia, essentially the same position the Bush administration took in Russia’s war with Chechen rebels who wanted to break off from Russia.
    ‘‘Russia needs to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors. Russia needs to realize that the empire is gone,’’ said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal U.S. discussions.

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