Russia insists it has no imperial ambitions for ex-Soviet neighbours

RUSSIA: MOSCOW INSISTED yesterday that it had no desire to acquire new territory in the former Soviet Union, despite the leader…

RUSSIA:MOSCOW INSISTED yesterday that it had no desire to acquire new territory in the former Soviet Union, despite the leader of South Ossetia saying his rebel Georgian region would soon join the Russian Federation.

"We have no imperial ambitions which people can accuse us of, and nor will we . . . we took that decision a long time ago and we have no desire, and no basis, to threaten the sovereignty of the former republics of the USSR," said Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.

"We have no ideological contradictions" with the West, he added, claiming that "there is no basis for a cold war. On the contrary, we have many common problems which we can only resolve by uniting our efforts".

Following Russia's military intervention in Georgia and its recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, other ex-Soviet states with strong western ties, particularly Ukraine, fear they might become a target for Moscow. Furthermore, Tbilisi has long claimed that Russia wants to annexe both its breakaway regions, to destabilise Georgia, undermine its bid to join Nato, and strengthen the Kremlin's strategic foothold in the Caucasus and Black Sea region.

"Yes, we will be part of the Russian Federation. We will do it according to the norms of international law," said South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity. "Now we are an independent state and we look forward to uniting with North Ossetia and joining the Russian Federation," he said, referring to a neighbouring region that is controlled by Moscow.

Following staunch denials of such a plan by Russia, however, Mr Kokoity performed an abrupt U-turn. "Seemingly, I have not been correctly understood. We do not intend to abandon our independence, which we have won at the cost of enormous sacrifices, and South Ossetia is not intending to become part of Russia.

"Yes, many in South Ossetia talk about uniting with North Ossetia as part of Russia, and no one can ban the expression of such ideas. But South Ossetia does not plan to become part of Russia."

Amid warnings from the West that Moscow may try to destabilise the largely ethnic-Russian Crimea region in Ukraine, Russia's foreign ministry criticised Kiev for its position on Georgia and its treatment of Russian speakers on its territory. "The rights of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine are being abused and there is a policy targeted at excluding the Russian language from the public life of the country," the ministry warned. "We have not heard words of pity or compassion for the death of civilians in and of Russian peacekeepers," the statement said, accusing Ukraine of bearing some responsibility for the bloodshed because it supplied Georgia with "heavy weaponry".

"On the contrary, the Ukrainian president has tried to blame Russia for the bloodshed . . . we hope that the wise Ukrainian people . . . do not allow the worsening of relations with Russia."

Ukraine's president Viktor Yushchenko again accused his erstwhile ally and prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko of conspiring with the main Kremlin-backed opposition party to oust him.

In neighbouring Poland, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was convinced that a US missile defence system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic was aimed at Russia rather than rockets launched by "rogue states" such as Iran or North Korea. "We are certain this system in Europe can have no other target for a long time to come but Russia's strategic forces," Mr Lavrov said.

His host, Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski, replied: "Poland will build confidence and will proceed . . . we hope that Russia's fears concerning the deal will fade with time."

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe