Russian lawmakers voted unanimously Monday to ask the president to recognize the independence of two unrecognized republics within Georgian borders, a move likely to anger the United States, the European Union and other Georgian allies.
The twin votes by the upper and lower houses of the Russian parliament came after intense fighting between Russia and Georgia over the two provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The votes were not legally binding and it was up to President Dmitry Medvedev to make the final call on diplomatic recognition. Still, experts say the blessing by lawmakers gives the Kremlin an extra bargaining chip in its dealings with the West as it tries to reassert influence in the former Soviet republics and resist moves by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.
"Today we must fulfill what is I think our historic mission - to defend small countries from aggressors," Federation Council member Boris Spiegel told Associated Press Television before the vote.
Currently, neither Russia nor any other member of the United Nations recognizes the two provinces' independence claims. Both won de-facto independence in the 1990s after wars with the Georgia, and have survived ever since with Russia's financial, political and military support.
"Neither Abkhazia ... nor South Ossetia will be part of the Georgian state," Abkhazian leader Sergei Bagapsh told lawmakers Monday.
After Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia by force Aug. 7, Russian troops overwhelmed the Georgians, and for nearly two weeks occupied positions deep within Georgia. Most of those forces withdrew Friday, although some Russia troops continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti and in Georgia outside the boundaries of the breakaway regions.
The fighting has brought relations between Russia and the West to a post-Cold War low, as Western nations accuse Russia of falling short of its commitment to withdraw forces from its smaller neighbor.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is convening a special meeting of European Union leaders Sept. 1 to determine the next steps the 27-member bloc will take in terms of aid to Georgia and future relations with Russia. France holds the EU's rotating presidency.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, however, said Monday the EU was not considering any sanctions against Russia.
On Sunday, a U.S. Navy destroyer loaded with humanitarian aid reached Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi, bringing baby food, milk, bottled water and a message of support for an embattled ally.
"The population of Georgia will feel more safe from today from the Russian aggression," Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili told The Associated Press on the aft missile deck of the USS McFaul after greeting U.S. Navy officers on shore.
"They will feel safe not because the destroyer is here but because they will feel they are not alone facing the Russian aggression," he added.
The guided missile cruiser USS McFaul, carrying about 55 tons of humanitarian aid, is the first of three American ships scheduled to arrive this week.
A U.S. official said the American ship anchored in Batumi, Georgia's main oil port on the Black Sea, because of concerns about Russian damage to the Georgian port of Poti.
In central Georgia, a few miles west of the city of Gori, a fire tore through an oil train Sunday after an explosion, sending plumes of black smoke into the air. The cause was not clear, but Georgian officials have accused Russian troops of targeting their oil facilities and transport links.
Georgia straddles a key westward route for oil from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and other Caspian Sea nations, giving it added strategic importance as the United States and the European Union seek to decrease Russia's dominance of oil and gas exports from the former Soviet Union.
The continued irresolution of the W.Sahara conflict: The right to self-determination vs. Realpolitik by Dr. Sidi Omar, Frente Polisario representative at the UN