Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in the midst of one of the lowest points in the Russia-West relationship since the breakup of the Soviet Union 17 years ago, said Tuesday that his country did not seek a new Cold War — but neither was it afraid of one.
"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."
The statement comes hours after Medvedev recognized the independence of two Georgian rebel provinces, defying the West. The recognition — which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described as "extremely unfortunate" — follows a short but intense war with Western-allied Georgia earlier this month.
"If they want to preserve good relations with Russia in the West, they will understand the reason behind our decision," Medvedev said.
Medvedev said that he had signed a decree on the decision to recognize the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Few other nations are likely to follow the move.
Rice said the United States continued to regard both breakaway regions as "part of the internationally recognized borders of Georgia."
Speaking in Texas, White House spokesman Tony Fratto on Tuesday said Russia is making a number of "irrational" decisions that puts its place in the world at risk.
Fratto said the U.S. will use its veto power on the U.N. Security Council to make sure any effort to change the provinces' international status is "dead on arrival."
On the heels of Russia's first post-Soviet invasion of a foreign country, recognition was another stark demonstration of the Kremlin's determination to hold sway in lands where its clout is jeopardized by NATO's expansion and growing Western influence.
Meanwhile, the the United States dispatched military ships bearing aid to a port city still controlled by Russian troops.
Rice also accused Medvedev of failing to honor his nation's commitments under an internationally backed cease-fire.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russia's recognition of the breakaway areas was "absolutely not acceptable." She insisted Medvedev's decision violates international agreements.
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 announcing Russia's recognition of the breakaway territories.
Russian forces have staked out positions beyond the de-facto borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two territories have effectively ruled themselves following wars in the 1990s.
"Georgia chose the least human way to achieve its goal — to absorb South Ossetia by eliminating a whole nation," Medvedev said.
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.
Medvedev ignored Western warnings against recognizing the independence claims of the two regions, which broke from Georgian government control in early 1990s wars and have run their own affairs with Russian support.
After Russia's parliament urged the move in unanimous votes Monday, the U.S. State Department said recognition would be "unacceptable" and President Bush urged the Kremlin against it.