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Russia tightened its control Monday over Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia with a new treaty envisaging closer military and economic ties with the lush sliver of land along the Black Sea.
The move drew outrage and cries of "annexation" in Georgia and sent a chill through those in Abkhazia who fear that wealthy Russians will snap up their precious coastline. It also raised further suspicions in the West about Russian President Vladimir Putin's territorial aspirations after his annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March.
Under the treaty signed by Putin and Abkhazia's leader in the nearby Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian and Abkhazian forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.
Russian troops have been deployed in Abkhazia for more than two decades since the region of 240,000 people broke away from Georgia in a separatist war in the early 1990s. Still, Monday's agreement reflected a clear attempt by Moscow to further expand its presence and came only after a change of leadership in the territory.
Coming amid a chill in Russia-West ties over the Ukrainian crisis, the deal raised concern about Moscow's plans. The Black Sea region has always been important for Putin, who justified the annexation of Crimea by saying it would guarantee that NATO warships would never be welcome on the peninsula, the home base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
NATO's secretary-general condemned the treaty, stressing that the alliance supports Georgia's sovereignty. He also called on Russia to reverse its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway province, as independent states.
The U.S. also said it wouldn't recognize Russia's move and expressed continued support for Georgia's sovereignty.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry denounced the new agreement as a "step toward the de-facto annexation" of Abkhazia and called on the international community to condemn the move.