Russia's Putin visits Georgian breakaway region in trip branded 'detrimental to peace'

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Russian president Vladimir Putin has sparked a diplomatic spat by visiting the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia in what was seen as a provocative move.

Both NATO and Georgia’s president have slammed the visit, which came just a week after US Vice-President Mike Pence condemned Russia’s ongoing presence on Georgian territory during a visit to the capital Tbilisi.

Mr Putin arrived in Abkhazia’s Black Sea resort of Pitsunda on Tuesday, coinciding with the ninth anniversary of the Russo-Georgian conflict of 2008.

Abkhazia and another Georgian region, South Ossetia, have considered themselves as separate from Georgia since the early 1990s.

Mr Putin recognised their independence in August 2008 after war broke out. Most other countries still consider the breakaway regions part of Georgia.

The visit came just days after Mr Putin was pictured on a hunting trip during which he was snapped shirtless in scenes reminiscent of infamous previous macho shots.

Mr Putin poses with a fish in Tyva, Siberia, in scenes reminiscent of his barechested horseback shots (REUTERS)

Mr Putin has stepped up military, economic and political support for Georgia’s separatist regions in the past few years.

At a meeting with Raul Khadzhimba, leader of the separatist administration, Mr Putin said Moscow was committed to building up a joint Russian-Abkhaz military contingent to ensure the security of people in Abkhazia.

“The most important thing is that we have entirely special relations with Abkhazia,” the Russian president said at the meeting.

“We reliably guarantee the security, self-sufficiency and independence of Abkhazia. I am sure that will continue to be the case.”

Russia has said in the past that it had to act during the 2008 war to defend civilians in the breakaway regions from Georgian military attacks. 

Western governments, however, say Russia fomented the separatist conflicts to frustrate Georgia’s drive to join NATO and the European Union.

After laying flowers on the graves of Georgian soldiers who died in 2008, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said on Tuesday: “Today, while grieving about the losses we have had during this tragedy, we see the president of the Russian Federation visiting Georgian Abkhazia.”

He said Mr Putin’s visit was “a violation of international law and trying to legitimise the historical injustice that the Russian Federation committed against Georgia”.

A NATO spokesman said Putin’s trip should have been agreed with the Georgian authorities beforehand.

“President Putin’s visit to the Abkhazia region of Georgia on the ninth anniversary of the armed conflict is detrimental to international efforts to find a peaceful and negotiated settlement,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement. 

Reporting by Reuters

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