LUXEMBOURG – The EU urged Russia on Tuesday to show restraint in its standoff with Georgia over its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and said Moscow's decision to send more peacekeepers to the area was not wise.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted his country's legal obligation to protect Russian speakers in the two regions, which have had de-facto independence since the early 1990s.
"All the statements we made in terms of protecting our citizens are rooted in the Russian constitution, which makes it mandatory for the Russian state to protect the lives and dignity of its citizens wherever they are," he said.
Russia has long provided support to the two regions, including granting residents passports and lifting trade restrictions.
If Georgia takes military action against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, "Russia will have to take retaliatory actions," Lavrov said at a news conference after discussing bilateral relations with senior EU officials.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke from Georgian control in brief wars in the 1990s. They seek either independence or absorption into Russia.
Tensions have spiraled in recent weeks as Georgia pushed for NATO membership and Russia worked on closer ties with the separatist regions. It has peacekeeping troops there which Georgia says actually support separatist forces.
Sitting next to Lavrov at the news conference, Javier Solana, the EU foreign and security affairs chief, spoke of the need to respect "the territorial integrity of Georgia" and "de-escalate this perception" that war is growing imminent.
Lavrov asserted Moscow was raising its peacekeeping troops within agreed limits. But Solana discounted that. "I would like to say very frankly that even if the increase of troops is within the limits ... I don't think it is a wise measure to increase now."
Lavrov accused Georgia of seeking war. He said it has secretly "acquired a huge number of offensive armaments." He said he presented EU officials with documented evidence of that.
Speaking separately to The Associated Press in a telephone interview, Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze said Russia's military buildup in Abkhazia and South Ossetia meant it seeks war and plans to occupy the two regions.
Bakradze visited the NATO headquarters in Brussels, which on Monday issued a statement reaffirming support for Georgian sovereignty.
The EU and Russia said they remained committed to take bilateral relations to a "strategic partnership."
But earlier Tuesday, the EU foreign ministers failed to agree among themselves on how to do that because of lingering objections from Lithuania, which wants Moscow first to improve ties with its immediate neighbors.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said his government was "ready for compromise," but demanded that Russia fix an oil pipeline to a Lithuanian refinery and peacefully resolve "frozen conflicts" in Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics.
The European Union seeks to enroll Russia — which badly needs foreign investors and expertise to develop its oil and gas reserves — into a "strategic partnership" covering a broad sweep of economic and political issues.
Negotiations in the last two years have stalled because Moscow balks at what it sees as EU human rights lecturing, and Poland had tangled with Moscow in a trade dispute that is now resolved.
Additionally, there is lingering ill will in Lithuania, which regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia and Lithuania have engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in recent years.
"Frozen conflicts create a dangerous situation in the sense of security and stability," Vaitiekunas told reporters on arrival at the EU foreign ministers meeting.
The European Commission is still looking forward to a June summit with Russia to formally launch negotiations for a strategic partnership in which energy plays a significant role.
The proposed partnership would be much broader than a decade-old cooperation deal. It would include everything from closer energy ties to better cooperation in the fields of crime fighting, immigration, food safety and consumer protection. It also would include touchy issues such as human rights and democratic reforms.