U.S. Military Ship Docks at Batumi

ReutersU.S. Captain John Moore greeting Georgians upon the arrival of Coast Guard cutter Dallas to Batumi on Wednesday.
BATUMI, Georgia -- A U.S. military ship docked at a southern Georgian port Wednesday, prompting Russia to send three of its military ships to another Georgian port, the tit-for-tat moves underscoring an escalating standoff between Moscow and the West.

The dockings came a day after President Dmitry Medvedev recognized two Georgian separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, prompting harsh criticism from Western nations.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas, carrying 34 tons of humanitarian aid, docked in the Black Sea port of Batumi, south of the zone of this month's fighting between Russia and Georgia. The arrival avoided Georgia's main cargo port of Poti, which is still controlled by Russian soldiers.

The U.S. Embassy in Georgia had earlier said the ship was headed to Poti but then retracted its statement. Zaza Gogava, head of Georgia's joint forces command, said Poti could have been mined by Russian forces and that it still contained several sunken Georgian ships hit in the fighting.

Poti's port reportedly suffered heavy damage from the Russian military. In addition, Russian troops have established checkpoints on the northern approach to the city, and a U.S. ship docking there could have been seen as a direct challenge.

Meanwhile, the Russian missile cruiser Aurora and two missile boats anchored at the port of Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, some 300 kilometers north of Batumi. The Russian Navy says the ships will be involved in peacekeeping operations.

Although Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of a European Union-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general has called using warships to deliver aid "devilish."

Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn warned that NATO has already exhausted the number of forces it can have in the Black Sea, according to international agreements, and warned Western nations against sending more ships.

"Can NATO -- which is not a state located on the Black Sea -- continuously increase its group of forces and systems there? It turns out that it cannot," Nogovitsyn said Wednesday, Interfax reported.

Many of the Russian troops that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the separatist region of South Ossetia have pulled back, but hundreds are estimated still to be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones" inside Georgia proper.

Western leaders assailed Russia for violating Georgia's territorial sovereignty and the Georgian government said Wednesday that it would withdraw some of its diplomats from Moscow.

"We cannot accept these violations of international law ... of a territory by the army of a neighboring country," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Paris, echoing statements from European capitals and Washington.