Defying Russia, an American warship that brought humanitarian aid to Georgia was expected to arrive today in this nervous Black Sea port that's being watched over by Russian soldiers, Georgian officials said.
The move would put U.S. military assets within close range of Russian forces for the first time since the Georgian conflict began, potentially setting up a confrontation with Moscow, the dominant naval power in the Black Sea.
Officials in Poti, Georgia's main commercial port, are preparing for the arrival of up to two U.S. military vessels this morning, said Alan Middleton, CEO of the privately run Poti Sea Port.
The port is within sight of a Russian military installation that was established last week, manned by an unknown number of troops. Just outside Poti, near the road that relief trucks would likely travel to distribute the U.S. supplies, Russian forces have set up a smaller checkpoint where Georgian residents staged a demonstration over the weekend.
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Western countries have said that both installations are in violation of a French-brokered cease-fire agreement because they lie several miles outside a “security zone” surrounding the border of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia. Russian officials have defended the checkpoints.
A spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy, Cmdr. Scott Miller, said the Coast Guard cutter Dallas is en route to Georgia but declined to say where it would anchor, citing security reasons.
The arrival of U.S. vessels was certain to anger Moscow. A senior Russian military official said Tuesday he was “bewildered” by the growing presence of NATO warships in the northeastern Black Sea. Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn told reporters in Moscow that nine NATO ships were in the region, including a U.S. vessel that arrived late Tuesday, the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported.
It wasn't clear how Russia would respond. Russian warships have been spotted off the coast of Georgia and, earlier this week, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Nogovitsyn as saying that Russian forces in the Black Sea might carry out searches of cargo ships “with the goal of preventing diversions and provocations.”
Officials in Poti said that no Georgia-bound ships had reported interference from the Russian vessels.
Coming to Poti would mark a change in U.S. military posture since Sunday, when the USS McFaul, a naval destroyer, the first U.S. warship to bring relief goods to Georgia, anchored off the coast of Batumi, a smaller port 50 miles to the south and far from any Russian checkpoints.