A U.S. military ship docked at a southern Georgian port Wednesday, and Russia sent a missile cruiser and two other ships to another Georgian port in a show of force amid an escalating standoff with the West over a nation devastated by war with Russia.
The dockings came a day after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recognized the two Georgian rebel territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, prompting harsh criticism from Western nations.
Georgia reacted Wednesday by recalling all but two diplomats from its embassy in Moscow.
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 in Batumi 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 the port in Poti could have been mined by Russian forces and still contained several Georgian ships sunk 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.
Another U.S. ship, the missile destroyer USS McFaul, was in Batumi from Sunday to Tuesday delivering humanitarian aid, and U.S. officials said it would remain in the Black Sea area for now.
Meanwhile, the Russian missile cruiser Moskva and two smaller missile boats anchored at the port in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, some 180 miles 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 the U.S. practice of using warships to deliver aid "devilish."
Col. Gen. 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 in the Black Sea - continuously increase its group of forces and systems there? It turns out that it cannot," Nogovitsyn was quoted as saying Wednesday by the Interfax news agency.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's office added to the criticism.
"Military ships are hardly a common way to deliver such aid," Interfax quoted Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying.
"Such activity doubtless does not promote the improvement of the situation in the region and is unliklely to be taken by the Saakashvili regime as a call for peace," Peskov said, referring to Georgia's pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Many of the Russian forces that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in South Ossetia have pulled back, but hundreds are estimated to still be manning checkpoints that Russia calls "security zones" inside Georgia proper.
Western leaders have assailed Russia for violating Georgia's territorial sovereignty.
"We cannot accept these violations of international law ... of a territory by the army of a neighboring country," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Paris.
"The Georgia crisis has provided a rude awakening," British Foreigh Secretary David Miliband said in an address in Ukraine, where he equated Russia's invasion of Georgia with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
"The sight of Russian tanks in a neighboring country on the 40th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring has shown that the temptations of power politics remain," Miliband said in an address in Ukraine.
Miliband said the West should "raise the costs to Russia of disregarding its responsibilities," and warned that Russia must change its ways.
"The Russian president says he is not afraid of a new Cold War," he said. "We don't want one. He has a big responsibility not to start one."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed Medvedev in a phone call Wednesday to immediately fulfill the EU cease-fire by pulling all troops out of Georgia - the accord requires both countries to withdraw to positions held before Aug. 7.
Georgia informed Russia it would pull most of its diplomats from its embassy in Moscow, leaving one envoy and another staffer, Georgian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nato Chikovani said. A Georgian Embassy staff list names 14 diplomats.
"Georgia will bring its diplomatic relations with Russia to the minimum," government minister Timur Yakobashvili said. He said Georgia was not now considering breaking off diplomatic relations with Russia but could do so if tensions worsen.
Yakobashvili said the embassy's consular service would continue to operate because many Georgian citizens lived in Russia.
Repeated phone calls to the embassy went unanswered.
The United States and other Western countries have given substantial military aid to Georgia, angering Russia, which regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence. Russia also has complained bitterly about aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.
South Ossetia and Georgia turned over detainees at a checkpoint outside South Ossetia, said Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights. He said South Ossetia handed over 85 Georgians who had been held at a police station, while Georgia in turn handed over 13 people.
In Tbilisi, boxes of aid were sorted, stacked and loaded onto trucks Wednesday for some of the tens of thousands of people still displaced by the fighting. Some boxes were stamped "USAID - from the American People."
Tim Callaghan, head of the USAID response team, told an AP television crew that aid workers would "continue to assess the needs" of those affected by the fighting and "provide other assistance as required."
The United Nations estimated that nearly 160,000 people had to flee their homes, but hundreds have returned to Georgian cities like Gori in the past week, AP reported.