TBILISI, Georgia – Russia recalled its ambassador, announced the evacuation of its diplomats and complained to the United Nations on Thursday after Georgia detained five Russian officers on spying charges, bringing relations between the ex-Soviet neighbors to a new low.
Georgian authorities detained the officers Wednesday, prompting angry statements from Russia’s defense minister, who denounced Georgia as a “bandit” state. Bilateral ties long have been strained over Georgia’s bid to join NATO and Moscow’s close links to Georgia’s breakaway provinces.
Russia called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to address the officers’ detentions, said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s mission to the U.N.
Moscow decided to launch a partial evacuation of Russian personnel and their families “in connection with a growing threat to their security.” It said government planes would begin taking Russians out of the country today.
Mikhail Svirin, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Georgia, said Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, some of the staffers and all diplomats’ families would also leave today.
The Foreign Ministry alerted all Russians to refrain from traveling to Georgia, and the embassy in Tbilisi stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili denounced the Russian moves as “hysteria.” “Russian personnel and their families face absolutely no threat here,” he said.
Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have become increasingly tense since Saakashvili came to power following Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, pledging to move the country out of Russia’s orbit.
Tbilisi officials have accused Russia of backing separatists in Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and making efforts to undermine Saakashvili’s government – allegations Russia has denied.
The latest flap was prompted when four Russian military intelligence officers were detained Wednesday in Tbilisi and the Black Sea port of Batumi on spying charges. A fifth officer was detained later that day, the Foreign Ministry said.
Georgian security forces cordoned the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi for a second day Thursday, demanding the handover of another Russian officer accused of spying.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the charges against the officers absurd and demanded their immediate release. “I won’t be surprised if today the Georgian side files charges against them of wanting to steal the sun from the sky,” Ivanov said on Russian television.