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US warship confronts Russian military in ‘tinderbox’ port

The USS Mount Whitney, pictured here in the Bosphorus, today made a controversial landing at the port of Poti

James Hider in Tbilisi and Tony Halpin in Moscow
A US Navy flagship carrying humanitarian aid yesterday steamed into a Georgian port where Russian troops are still stationed, stoking tensions once again in the tinderbox Caucasus region.

A previous trip by US warships was cancelled at the last minute a week ago amid fears that an armed stand-off could intensify in the Black Sea port of Poti.

The arrival of the USS Mount Whitney, flagship of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, came as Moscow accused Dick Cheney, the hawkish US Vice-President, of stoking tensions during a visit to Tbilisi this week. After meeting President Saakashvili, Mr Cheney vowed to bring Georgia into the Nato alliance. Russia sees such moves as Western encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence.

Russia’s leaders have accused previous US warships that docked at the port of Batumi, to the south, of delivering weapons to re-arm the smashed Georgian military — charges that Washington denied.

While Russia again questioned the deployment of what it described as “the number one ship of its type in the US Navy” in the Black Sea, it said that it planned no military action in response. The Russian Army has kept a small component of soldiers in Poti, where Georgian officials accuse them of looting port authority buildings.

“Naval ships of that class can hardly deliver a large amount of aid,” said Andrei Nesterenko, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman. “Such ships have a hold for keeping provisions for the crew and items needed for sailing. How many tonnes of aid can a ship of that type deliver?”

He said that the presence of US warships could contravene international conventions governing shipping in the Black Sea, and in particular restrictions on the entry of naval ships from countries that do not share a Black Sea coastline. The small Russian garrison in Poti would pose no military threat to a vessel like the Mount Whitney, but the proximity of two hostile forces in such a fraught environment set the political temperature rising again in the Caucasus a month after Russia’s five-day war with Georgia.

Moscow, which followed up its crushing military defeat of Georgia by unilaterally recognising two of its breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, was angry that Mr Cheney still insisted on Georgia’s entrance into the Atlantic alliance — something several key Nato members oppose. “The new promises to Tbilisi relating to the speedy membership of Nato strengthen the Saakashvili regime’s dangerous feeling of impunity and encourages its dangerous ambitions,” said Mr Nesterenko.

Visiting Kiev, the Ukrainian capital yesterday, Mr Cheney kept up his tough anti-Russian rhetoric when he urged Ukraine’s squabbling pro-Western leaders to unite in the face of threats to the country’s security. He met President Yushchenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko, the Prime Minister, and told them that Ukraine’s best hope was to be “united with other democracies”.

Mr Yushchenko has accused his former Orange Revolution ally of siding with Russia in the war with Georgia, an allegation she denies. The split led to the collapse of Ukraine’s coalition Government on Tuesday.

After endorsing Georgia’s application, Mr Cheney said that the US was also committed to Ukraine’s membership of Nato. Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house, accused Mr Cheney of forging an “anti-Russian axis”.

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