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Clinton Warns Putin to Respect Georgian Sovereignty Amid Strains

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Russia to honor its commitments under accords that ended its five-day conflict with Georgia in 2008, requiring troop pullback to pre-war numbers and locations.

“We reject Russia’s occupation and militarization of Georgia’s territory and we call upon Russia to fulfill its obligations under the 2008 cease-fire resolution, including withdrawal of its forces to pre-conflict positions and free access for humanitarian assistance,” Clinton said in a speech today in the Black Sea port of Batumi after meeting Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri.

The criticism highlights the strains on U.S.-Russia ties as Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin. Clinton is renewing calls that challenge Russia’s sway in the region after spearheading U.S. criticism of a December parliamentary election and Russian policy in Syria, where a 15-month conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Putin has said that Clinton’s calls for an investigation into voter “fraud” emboldened the opposition and fomented the worst unrest in his 12 years in power. Clinton last week rejected Russia’s claim that it’s a stabilizing influence on Syria and said that it’s speeding the country’s slide into civil war by protecting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia routed Georgia’s army in a five-day war in August 2008 over the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, later recognizing its independence as well as that of Abkhazia, another separatist region, where it still maintains military forces. Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with Russia on Sept. 2 of that year.

U.S. Strains

Putin skipped the Group of Eight summit hosted by his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama last month. The former Cold War foes are at odds over Western efforts to oust Assad, a bid by U.S. lawmakers to sanction Russian officials for human rights abuses and a planned U.S. missile-defense shield in Europe.

Putin is looking to solidify the country’s clout in the former Soviet Union. He set out to build regional alliances, luring Kazakhstan and Belarus to join Russia in a customs union, which he says will be a catalyst for growth and may expand to include neighbors such as Ukraine.

The bloc, which plans further policy integration to become the Eurasian Union by 2015, is “the biggest geopolitical event in the post-Soviet area since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Putin said last month.

Putin’s Visit

The Russian leader visited an area near the country’s border with Abkhazia four days after his inauguration on May 7 and met the leaders of the two separatist regions at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

U.S. ally Georgia maintains Russia occupied the areas after the conflict. Russian leaders have refused to meet or speak with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom they blame for starting the 2008 conflict.

Clinton, who arrived in Georgia after a visit to neighboring Armenia yesterday, reviewed priority areas of bilateral cooperation including democracy, trade and defense and security ties.

She called on Georgia’s leaders to hold “free and fair” parliamentary and presidential elections before her meeting with the country’s opposition parties that plan to contest the balloting in October. Clinton also plans to meet Saakashvili later today.

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