MOSCOW -- Six Russian military officers accused of espionage were allowed to leave Georgia and fly to Moscow yesterday as Georgian authorities sought to defuse a diplomatic crisis with their northern neighbor.
But Russia announced a ban on most direct transportation links between the two countries and a suspension of postal service. Russian officials claimed the action was in response to unpaid debts and safety violations rather than retaliation for the arrest last week of four of the men.
It appeared those measures would take effect despite Georgia's decision to release the four and to grant the two others safe passage out of the country.
Russian television showed the four officers, still in handcuffs, being released in Tbilisi into the custody of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as the first step in their repatriation. All six were greeted last night at a military airport outside Moscow by Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov.
President Vladimir V. Putin spoke yesterday by telephone with President Bush about the incident, the Kremlin announced.
Putin warned against any actions by foreign countries "that Georgia's leadership could interpret as encouraging its destructive policy," the Kremlin news service said after the conversation.
Relations between Russia and its former fellow Soviet republic have deteriorated since the 2004 election of pro-Western Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power after a non- violent people's revolt dubbed the Rose Revolution. The growing tension has raised concerns about the risk of a military clash between the two countries.
Speaking at a news conference in Tbilisi, Saakashvili played down the significance of Russia's retaliatory steps, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.
"We are not a country that can be so easily scared," Saakashvili said. He also appeared to hold out an olive branch, describing the two countries as "historical partners."
Saakashvili charged that the root cause of troubles in Georgian-Russian ties was Moscow's refusal to fully recognize Georgia's independence and separate identity.
"Problems between Georgia and Russia will end after Russia accepts us as we are," he said. "We do not want the Russian military, but we want Russian tourists. We do not want Russian spies, but we want Russian business."
Russia maintains two Soviet-era military bases in Georgia, which it has pledged to close by 2008. It also has troops on peacekeeping duty in two breakaway Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Efforts by Tbilisi to recover control of the breakaway regions and Moscow's support for the separatist governments have been among the main causes of worsening relations.
Saakashvili also has made it a top goal of his administration to bring Georgia into NATO, a turn away from Moscow that has further angered Putin.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana issued a statement welcoming Georgia's decision to release the officers. "I hope normal relations can now be re-established between Russia and Georgia," Solana said. "The European Union stands ready to facilitate contacts between the two sides and to support further confidence-building measures."
Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute, a Moscow think tank, said Moscow had played into Saakashvili's hands by responding with what he termed "blunt, inappropriate pressure bordering on blackmail."
"The Kremlin demonstrates that it still treats its former republics as if the world is still back in the early 1990s and as if there is no way to go but back into the Kremlin's embrace," he said.
But Sergei Mironov, head of the upper house of Russia's parliament, stressed in televised comments that Russia would retaliate against other countries when it felt offended.
"Russia is a great state," he said. "We don't intend to forgive spitting in our direction. Simply speaking, if somebody doesn't have wits and is trying to play on emotions we will be sobering them up with very simple and affordable methods that everyone will be able to understand."
David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.