US urges Georgia to align with EU, NATO

MATTHEW LEE AP Diplomatic Writer Published:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States is urging the former Soviet republic of Georgia to further integrate with Europe and NATO and renewing demands that Russia withdraw troops from disputed enclaves it occupies there. The call comes amid growing tensions between Russia and the West over the ouster of a pro-Moscow president in Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.

In comments likely to fuel already heightened Russian suspicions over Western intentions in Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday announced additional but unspecified U.S. assistance "to help support Georgia's European and Euro-Atlantic vision."

He also denounced Russia's continued military presence in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and called on Moscow to fulfill the terms of the cease-fire that ended the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.

Kerry, speaking at a meeting of the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission at the State Department, insisted that U.S. policy toward Ukraine, Georgia and the other states that once made up the Soviet Union is not aimed at reducing Russia's influence in its neighborhood. Instead, he maintained that U.S. encouragement for former Soviet states to integrate with the West is driven by America's desire to see them succeed as robust democracies with strong economies.

"We don't make that urging ... as some sort of zero-sum game between the East and West or between us and any other party," Kerry said. "We simply want people to be able to exercise their freedom of choice and be able to maximize their economic opportunities. That doesn't mean that it can't also mean engagement with others."

He stressed that the U.S. supports Georgia's membership in NATO -- something opposed by Russia -- and wants to see it sign a partnership agreement with the European Union later this year. A similar proposed agreement between Ukraine and the E.U. was among the catalysts that led to the deadly unrest in Kiev that unseated pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last week. Some Russian officials accuse the West of being behind the revolt against Yanukovych. U.S. and European officials have adamantly denied such allegations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered massive military exercises in western Russia, including along its border with Ukraine. Russian news agencies reported that the Defense Ministry would take steps to strengthen security at facilities of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, where there have been clashes between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators. Pro-Russian protesters have spoken of secession and a Russian lawmaker has stoked their passions by promising that Russia will protect them.

Those steps have raised fears of possible Russian military intervention in Ukraine along the lines of its 2008 operation in Georgia, which was condemned by the United States and its European allies. Despite the cease-fire agreement, Russia maintains troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Kerry, sitting next to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, said the U.S. "remains steadfast in our support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

"We continue to object to Russia's occupation, militarization and borderization of Georgian territory, and we call on Russia to fulfil its obligations under the 2008 cease-fire agreement, including the withdrawal of forces and free access for humanitarian assistance," Kerry said.

Garibashvili thanked Kerry for U.S. support for Georgia.

"We attach critical importance to our strategic partnership with the United States," he said.