TSKHINVALI, Georgia – Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Moscow on Friday to protest the presence of Russian troops on its territory, and its president cast the far-confrontation over his country's fate as "a fight between the civilized and the uncivilized worlds."
With European Union leaders set to huddle on how to deal with an increasingly assertive Russia, Vladimir Putin angrily warned Europe not to do America's bidding and said Moscow does not fear Western sanctions.
Russia has faced isolation over its offensive in Georgia and its recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. No other country has followed suit and recognized the regions' independence. The United States and Europe have condemned Russia's actions but are hard pressed to find an effective response.
Georgia's diplomats in Russia will leave Moscow on Saturday, Georgian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nato Chikovani said. Georgia's leadership followed through on a call from lawmakers who voted unanimously late Thursday to break off ties with Russia, branding it an "aggressor country."
"We found ourselves in an awkward situation when a country militarily invading and occupying our country, then recognizing part of its territories, is trying to create a sense of normalcy" by maintaining diplomatic relations, Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said in Sweden.
"I think it is the right decision," Tbilisi resident Irakli Makharadze said. "What else should we do in the situation when the country is fighting against us, is occupying our territories, destroying everything and killing our people? We could not react differently."
The diplomatic break will require Georgia and Russia to negotiate through third countries if they negotiate at all — a sticky situation because Russia sees Western nations as biased in Georgia's favor. Georgia, which had pushed for a greater role for international organizations, could see it as advantage.
But it may bring little practical change, because there were few signs of any productive diplomacy even before the war.
Trade between Russia and Georgia are also minimal, following Russian bans in 2006 on Georgia's major exports — wine and mineral water — and other products. Only a fraction of foreign investment in Georgia comes from Russia, while a Russian ban on direct flights to and from Georgia was lifted this year but flights halted again as the war erupted.
Russia criticized the decision, in line with its portrayal of Georgia as a stubborn troublemaker. "Breaking off diplomatic relations with Tbilisi is not Moscow's choice, and the responsibility lies with Tbilisi," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said, according to the Russian news agency.
Adding to the tension, a lawmaker in South Ossetia said Russia intends to eventually absorb the province at the center of the five-day war, which broke out Aug. 7 when Georgia attacked South Ossetia in a bid to wrest control from separatists. Russia sent in tanks, troops and bombers, and has maintained a powerful military presence.
Russia further angered the West and startled even its staunch supporters by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Pointedly visiting Poti, a Black Sea port still shadowed by Russian forces who have set up positions nearby, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili gloated about the lack of global support for Moscow's move to redraw the borders of his country.
"Russia ... has achieved one thing," he said. "Earlier this issue got little attention from our friends, today it is a topic for the whole world." He thanked China and Central Asian countries for not following Russia's lead and noted that Barack Obama had mentioned Georgia along with Afghanistan and Iraq in his speech at the U.S. Democratic convention.
"Today it is a fight between the civilized and the uncivilized worlds," Saakashvili said. He called the Russians "occupiers."
"They didn't come up here to seize a few villages or to ethnically cleanse although they did all of this," Saakashvili told reporters in Poti. "They came here also to destroy the rest of the country and that's what they were doing, hitting the most sensitive targets."
Putin rejected that and lashed but at Georgia and its Western supporters.
Russia defended the honor and the lives of its citizens with its war in Georgia, Putin said in an interview with Germany's ARD television, and he argued that it stuck to its mandate to help keep peace in South Ossetia.
"Such a country will not be in isolation," Putin said in an excerpt shown on state-run Russian television.
European Union leaders will not decide to impose sanctions on Russia at their summit next week in Brussels, even though some EU countries have pushed for them, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said Friday. Putin turned to a sausage analogy to say Moscow is not afraid.
"If we defend our lives, they will take away our sausage?" he said. "What's our choice? Between sausage and life? We choose life."
Putin also tried to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States.
"If European countries want to serve the foreign policy interests of the United States, in my view they won't win anything from this," he said, accusing Europe of doing America's bidding by supporting Kosovo's independence declaration in February.
He suggested Western emphasis on the sanctity of Georgia's borders is hypocritical, saying that a U.N. resolution on Serbia's territorial integrity was "thrown in the garbage."
"Why? Because the White House gave the order and everyone carried it out," Putin said.
Putin also accused the West of double standards over its support for Saakashvili, pointing to the violent dispersal of opposition protests in Georgia last year and the "criminal act" of Georgia's offensive against South Ossetia.
"And this is, of course, a democratic country with which one should conduct dialogue, and that should be taken into NATO and maybe the EU," he said sarcastically.
Russia has bitterly opposed Saakashvili's drive to bring Georgia into NATO.
The interview came a day after Putin told CNN that the U.S. pushed Georgia into war with South Ossetia and that he suspects it was done to affect the outcome of the U.S. presidential election — a contention the White House dismissed as "patently false."
Kurt Volker, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, said Friday that the fighting was prompted by Russian pressure and shelling from South Ossetia.
"We did have lots of contacts with Georgia over a long period of time. And the nature of that has always been to say 'don't let yourself get drawn into a military confrontation here,"' Volker said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. "Georgia found it too hard to hold that line when they were seeing what Russia was preparing to do."
Long-standing tensions between Georgian peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia and Russian and South Ossetian troops escalated on Aug. 1 when South Ossetia said Georgians shot six people. Over the next several days, each side repeatedly accused the other of launching further attacks.
South Ossetia rejected a proposal for an Aug. 6 conflict-resolution meeting. South Ossetia says its capital came under Georgian shelling that night.
Georgia's president called a cease-fire the next evening. But hours later, the full-scale barrage of Tskhinvali began. South Ossetia accused Saakashvili of treachery, but Saakashvili said he called for the assault following attacks by South Ossetian forces and because of reports that Russian troops were moving in.
South Ossetian parliamentary speaker Znaur Gassiyev said Friday that Russia will absorb South Ossetia within "several years" or even earlier. He said that position was "firmly stated" by both the province's leader, Eduard Kokoity, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in talks in Moscow earlier this week.
The statement stoking Georgian suspicion that Moscow's intent all along has been to annex the South Ossetia.
In Moscow, a Kremlin spokeswoman said Friday there was "no official information" on the talks.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia's central government during a war in the early 1990s, and many see integration into Russia as a logical next step for the province with closer ethnic ties to North Ossetia, in Russia, than with Georgia.