MOSCOW Russia formally recognized the breakaway Georgian territories at the heart of its war with Georgia on Tuesday, heightening tensions with the West as the United States dispatched a military ship bearing aid to a port city still patrolled by Russian troops.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Georgia forced Russia's hand by launching an attack targeting South Ossetia on Aug. 7 in an apparent bid to seize control of the breakaway region.
In response, Russian tanks and troops drove deep into the U.S. ally's territory in a five-day war that Moscow saw as a justified response to a military threat in its backyard and the West viewed as a repeat of Soviet-style intervention in its vassal states.
"This is not an easy choice but this is the only chance to save people's lives," Medvedev said Tuesday in a televised address a day after Russia's Kremlin-controlled parliament voted unanimously to support the diplomatic recognition.
The U.S. was taken surprise by the speed of the Russian response on recognition and escalated it by having Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threaten a U.N. Security Council veto should Russia ask for international recognition of its move.
"Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a part of the internationally recognized borders of Georgia and it's going to remain so," Rice said.
Britain, Germany and France also criticized the decision.
Medvedev later said Russia did not seek or fear a new Cold War and that it was up to the West to avoid it.
"We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War," Medvedev was quoted as saying Tuesday by the ITAR-Tass news agency. "But we don't want it and in this situation everything depends on the position of our partners."
"If they want to preserve good relations with Russia in the West, they will understand the reason behind our decision," Medvedev said.
Russian forces have staked out positions beyond the de-facto borders of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two territories have effectively ruled themselves following wars in the 1990s.
While Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of an EU-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general countered Tuesday that using warships to deliver aid was "devilish."
"The heightened activity of NATO ships in the Black Sea perplexes us," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in Moscow. The United States says its ships are carrying humanitarian aid but suspicion persists in Russia that they are delivering military materiel clandestinely.
Many of the Russian forces have pulled back from their positions in Georgia, but hundreds at least are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones."
Two of those checkpoints are near the edge of Poti, one of Georgia's most important Black Sea ports one by a bridge that provides the only access to Poti. The Russian military is also claiming the right to patrol in the city.
Angering Russia, the United States sent the missile destroyer USS McFaul to the southern Georgian port of Batumi, well away from the conflict zone, to deliver 34 tons of humanitarian aid on Sunday.
The McFaul left Batumi on Tuesday but would remain in the Black Sea area, said Commander Scott Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas, meanwhile, was headed for Georgia with a shipment of aid.
Embassy spokesman Stephen Guice did not give details on which ship would aim to enter Poti, but it appeared likely the smaller Coast Guard ship would aim to dock, with the McFaul possibly remaining on guard at sea.
While he did not link it with the U.S. ships, Nogovitsyn said a unit of Russian naval ships was off Sukhumi the capital of another separatist Georgian region, Abkhazia, on the Black Sea north of Poti. He said the ships were observing the pullout of Russian troops from Georgia.
Nogovitsyn told reporters that 10 ships from NATO nations were currently in the Black Sea and that eight more are to join them soon.
"They have very serious arsenal on their ships," Nogovitsyn said. "The Black Sea is just a small pool for their arms with the range of 2,500 kilometers."
The United States 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 has also complained bitterly about aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.
Medvedev said Georgian Presdent Mikhail Saakshvili was so bent on gaining control of South Ossetia that he resorted to "genocide."
"Georgia chose the least human way to achieve its goal to absorb South Ossetia by eliminating a whole nation," Medvedev said.
Hundreds of jubilant Ossetians and Abkhazians spilled onto the streets in their regional capitals after his announcement, waving national flags, firing shots in the air, cheering and dancing traditional Caucasian dances. "This is the happiest day of my life," said Julia Babyeva, 19, as she celebrated the news in the devastated South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
Both breakaway regions rely heavily on Russia for pensions and government subsidies. Most people in the two regions have been given Russian passports, and already consider themselves citizens of Russia.
Russia's military presence seems likely to further weaken Georgia, a Western ally in the Caucasus region, a major transit corridor for energy supplies to Europe and a strategic crossroads close to the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and energy-rich Central Asia.
Georgia lashed out at Russia, as expected.
"Russia is trying to legalize the results of an ethnic cleansing it has conducted, to oppose it to the West," Georgia's state minister on reintegration, Timur Yakobashvili, told The Associated Press. "But it will result in Russia's isolation from the world."
In London, British oil company BP PLC announced Monday it has reopened the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which runs through Georgia.
The pipeline, which provides some 1 million barrels per day of Caspian Sea crude to international markets, had been closed for more than two weeks after a fire on its Turkish stretch. Kurdish rebels claimed responsibility for the blaze.
Associated Press Writers Douglas Birch and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia contributed to this report.