BATUMI, Georgia – A U.S. military ship loaded with aid docked at a southern Georgian port Wednesday, and Russia sent three missile boats to another Georgian port as the standoff escalated over a nation devastated by war with Russia.
Georgia's government said its short war with Russia had caused $1 billion in damages, while European leaders called the Kremlin's moves in two breakaway Georgian regions an unacceptable attempt to unilaterally redraw the map of the Caucasus region.
The dockings came a day after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recognized the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, which Georgia answered Wednesday by recalling all but two diplomats from its embassy in Moscow.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas, carrying 34 tons of humanitarian aid, docked in the Black Sea port of Batumi, south of the zone of this month's fighting between Russia and Georgia. The arrival avoided Georgia's main cargo port of Poti, still controlled by Russian soldiers.
The U.S. Embassy in Georgia had earlier said the ship was headed to Poti, but then retracted the statement. Zaza Gogava, head of Georgia's joint forces command, said Poti could have been mined by Russian forces and still contained several sunken Georgian ships hit in the fighting.
Poti's port also reportedly sustained heavy damage by the Russian military. In addition, Russian troops have established checkpoints on the northern approach to the city and a U.S. ship docking there could be perceived as a direct challenge.
Meanwhile, the Russian missile cruiser Moskva and two smaller missile boats anchored at the port of Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, some 180 miles north of Batumi. The Russian navy said the ships were involved in peacekeeping operations.
Although Western nations are calling the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of a European Union-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general said using warships to deliver aid is "devilish."
Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn warned that NATO has already exhausted the number of military forces it can have in the Black Sea under international agreements and warned Western nations against sending more ships.
"Can NATO — which is not a state located in the Black Sea — continuously increase its group of forces and systems there? It turns out that it cannot," Nogovitsyn was quoted as saying Wednesday by the Interfax news agency.
Western leaders assailed Russia for violating Georgia's territorial sovereignty.
"We cannot accept these violations of international law, of accords for security and cooperation in Europe, of United Nations resolutions, and the taking ... of a territory by the army of a neighboring country," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Wednesday.
Britain's foreign minister, David Miliband, said Moscow succumbed to "the temptations of power politics" with its invasion of Georgia and warned Russia not to start a new Cold War. "Yesterday's unilateral attempt to redraw the map marks a moment of real significance," he said.
"Russia is more isolated, less trusted and less respected than two weeks ago," Miliband added in a speech during a visit to Kiev to show support for Ukraine, which like Georgia is a former Soviet republic whose pro-Western leader angered the Kremlin by seeking membership in NATO.
President Bush urged Russia to reconsider its "irresponsible decision."
"Russia's action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations," Bush said in a statement Tuesday from Crawford, Texas, where he is on vacation.
Many of the Russian forces that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the separatist region of South Ossetia have pulled back, but hundreds at least are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones" inside Georgia proper.
The U.S. and other Western countries have given substantial military aid to Georgia, angering Russia, which regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence. Russia also has complained bitterly about aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.
In Tbilisi, boxes of aid were sorted, stacked and loaded onto trucks Wednesday for some of the tens of thousands of people still displaced by the fighting. Some boxes were stamped "USAID — from the American People."
Tim Callaghan, head of the USAID response team, told an AP television crew that aid workers would "continue to assess the needs" of those affected by the fighting and "provide other assistance as required."
The United Nations estimated that nearly 160,000 people had to flee their homes, but hundreds have returned to Georgian cities like Gori in the past week.
In Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said Russia had inflicted damage worth $1 billion. That is about a third of the entire government budget for last year and Georgian leaders are hoping for substantial economic aid from the West to help recover.
Gurgenidze added that despite the extensive damage, the fighting had not fundamentally hurt the country's economy, which has boomed in recent years, with annual growth of 10 percent to 12 percent in 2006 and 2007.
"The Georgian economy has continued functioning more or less as normal, the financial system kept functioning, the exchange rate has held up, the consumers have kept consuming," Gurgenidze said
Russia's ambassador to Moldova, meanwhile, said the country's leaders should be wary of what happened in Georgia and avoid a "bloody and catastrophic trend of events" in the separatist, pro-Russia region of Trans-Dniester. The ambassador, Valeri Kuzmin, said Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia because of "Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia."
Trans-Dniester broke away from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1990. A war broke out between Moldovan forces and separatists in 1992 leaving 1,500 dead. Trans-Dniester is supported by Russia but is not recognized internationally. Russia has 1,500 troops stationed there to guard weapons facilities.