updated 10/2/2006 4:32:14 PM ET 2006-10-02T20:32:14

Georgia released four Russian officers whose arrest on spying charges has angered its giant northern neighbor, but a vengeful Russia pushed ahead Monday with punitive sanctions aimed at dealing a painful blow to the economically struggling Caucasus nation.

The tension reflected Moscow’s difficult relations with Georgia, which has defied President Vladimir Putin with a pro-Western stance, hosts unwanted Russian troops on its soil and is facing two Russian-backed separatist movements that could flare up in new violence.

Georgia’s agreement to release the men — even as it reaffirmed the spying allegations against them — appeared to be a capitulation that underscored its vulnerability. To many Russians, however, the very fact that the former Soviet republic dared detain the men was an affront to Moscow’s prestige and its ability to project power and influence across an area many Russians still call “the near abroad.”

The questions now on the table are how long the sanctions will last, whether Russia will go ahead with plans to withdraw its military presence in Georgia by 2008, and whether the crisis can be ended without new violence in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since the early 1990s.

Russia has granted its citizenship to many residents of the rebel provinces, which have enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away from Georgia in bloody wars the early 1990s. Separatist leaders have regularly traveled to Russia for meetings with top officials.

The Kremlin’s willingness and ability to provide strong backing for Georgia’s breakaway regions is watched closely elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse left a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups clamoring for autonomy, independence or greater links to Russia.

“We won’t forgive those who spit at us,” Russian parliament’s upper house speaker Sergei Mironov said.

Russians leave Georgia
Infuriated by Wednesday’s arrests, Russia has put its troops in Georgia on high alert, recalled its ambassador and evacuated its citizens. And even though Georgian officials announced early Monday that the officers would be handed over to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and sent home, Russia’s transport and communications ministries declared that all air, road, rail sea and postal links with Georgia would be suspended starting Tuesday.

Visiting Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, who holds the rotating OSCE chairmanship, urged Russia to respond to the officers’ release by restoring transport and postal links.

But in a potentially even more crippling blow, Russian lawmakers scheduled debate this week on a bill that could bar Georgians living in Russia from cabling money home. Russian officials say about 300,000 Georgians live in Russia; some estimates put the number far higher — at about 1 million of Georgia’s 4.4 million population.

Russia’s lower house speaker, Boris Gryzlov, said Monday that Georgians living in Russia send home an estimated $1 billion a year. In June, Putin put the amount at $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually — an amount comparable to Georgia’s state budget.

Monday’s sanctions follow a government session at which Putin denounced the arrests as “state terrorism involving hostage-taking” and ordered top Cabinet members to draw up retaliatory measures. “These people think that under the roof of their foreign sponsors they can feel comfortable and secure. Is it really so?” Putin questioned ominously.

Russia’s chilly relations with Georgia have worsened steadily since President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power following Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, vowing to take the country out of Russia’s orbit, bring breakaway provinces back into fold and join NATO in 2008.

Saakashvili’s course angered Moscow, which has warily watched the U.S. expansion into what it considered its home turf.

Putin calls Bush
The Kremlin said Putin discussed the situations in both Georgia and Iran with President Bush in a phone conversation Monday.

Putin underlined “the unacceptability and danger of any actions by third nations that could be interpreted by the Georgian leadership as an encouragement of its destructive policy,” the Kremlin said in a statement — an apparent reference to U.S. support for Saakashvili’s government.

Russia last week tried to exert international pressure on Georgia by proposing a U.N. Security Council statement expressing grave concern at Tbilisi’s actions. But the United States balked — adding to Russian suspicions that it was behind the latest tensions.

Despite the tensions, Putin said Russia would stick to a deal signed last year to withdraw its troops from Georgia by the end of 2008. Along with some 2,500 peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has 3,000-4,000 troops at two military bases in Georgia.

Saakashvili said Monday that his nation was handing over the four detained Russians to the OSCE to be flown home even though Georgia has a strong case against them. “It’s a very solid case of espionage, subversion and trying to destabilize my country,” he told reporters.

The officers were then brought to Georgian prosecutors who reaffirmed spying accusations against them and barred them from entering Georgia again.

The four Russian officers released from custody were joined on a flight to Moscow on Monday by two other officers sought by Georgian authorities on spying charges. The two had been hiding in the Russian military headquarters.

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov shrugged off Georgian accusations, adding that Moscow expected Georgian “provocations” to continue. One of the released officers, Lt. Col. Dmitry Kazantsev, said the Georgian spying charges lacked any evidence, the Interfax news agency said.

Georgian authorities said the spy ring’s alleged chief was involved in a 2005 bombing in the town of Gori that killed three police officers.

“We have seen instigation of violence and direct acts of violence,” Saakashvili said. Russia, added, must not “behave as a bully and use blackmail, use pressure ... trying to undermine neighbors.”

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