RUSSIA has issued a stark warning over what it says is a build-up of Nato ships in the Black Sea, as tensions rise to their highest level since the outbreak of hostilities in Georgia.
The missile destroyer USS McFaul is already off the coast, with the US Coastguard ship Dallas docked in Georgia's port of Batumi, both to show support for the Caucasus nation. Washington has now ordered the flagship of its 6th Fleet, the sophisticated command ship Mount Whitney, into the area, saying it will deliver humanitarian supplies. But the flotilla has angered the Kremlin.
Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to Nato, warned against western interference in Georgia's two breakaway regions, saying: "If Nato takes military actions against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, acting solely in support of Tbilisi, this will mean a declaration of war on Russia."
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, dragged the United States presidential candidates into the row. He suggested Georgia might have been pushed by someone in the US into using force to protect the two separatist states, saying the anti-Moscow rhetoric would help give a competitive advantage to one of the candidates.
Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia's deputy chief of the general staff, claimed up to 18 Nato vessels were in, or expected to be in, the Black Sea, and he attacked the use of warships to deliver aid to Georgia as "devilish".
Three frigates – from Spain, Germany and Poland – sailed into the Black Sea eight days ago. They were joined later by a US frigate, the Taylor, for port visits and exercises off the coasts of Romania and Bulgaria. Four warships of Nato member Turkey are also in the Black Sea.
Mr Putin's spokesman said: "The appearance of Nato battleships here in the Black Sea basin … and the decision to deliver humanitarian aid (to Georgia] using Nato battleships is something that can hardly be explained.
"Let us hope that we do not see any direct confrontation."
Russia claims the build-up is contrary to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates the passage of warships there. But that charge has been denied by Carmen Romero, a Nato spokeswoman, who said the alliance had applied for transit into the Black Sea in June and stressed that the vessels would stay less than 21 days, as required by the convention.
"There is no Nato naval build-up in the Black Sea," she said. "Nato is conducting a routine and long planned exercise limited to the western part of the Black Sea. The exercise is not related to the crisis in Georgia."
Meanwhile, in an interview with CNN, Mr Putin, the former president, suggested the conflict was orchestrated to give one side in the battle for the White House an advantage. Although he did not single out John McCain, the Republican candidate has been more strident in his criticism of Russia than his Democratic rival, Barack Obama.
Mr McCain has said that Nato's failure to sign up Georgia into the military alliance had left the country vulnerable. And while Mr Obama has called for restraint on both sides, he has condemned Russian aggression.
Mr Putin said he suspected someone in the US had provoked the Georgia conflict to make the situation more tense and create "a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US president".
He went on: "The fact is that US citizens were, indeed, in the area in conflict during the hostilities. It should be admitted they would do so only following direct orders from their leaders."
Mr Putin added that the US had armed and trained Georgia.
But a White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said: "To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate – it sounds not rational."
Pressure on Russia will mount on Monday at an emergency summit of European Union leaders, to be attended by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister.
Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, suggested the EU would consider sanctions against Russia.
As current president of the EU, France said it would aim to get consensus among all 27 countries of the bloc if sanctions were envisaged.
While the EU is not contemplating the most stringent of sanctions, such as the travel bans and arms embargoes imposed on Iran, it could postpone talks on a new partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia scheduled for September. The EU could also scrutinise the activities of the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which obtains 70 per cent of its profits from sales to Europe.
Washington said it was considering scrapping a US-Russia civilian nuclear co-operation pact in response to the conflict.
In a related development, Moscow, which has been incensed by the proposed US anti-ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, announced it had successfully tested a long-range Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile.
According to the Russians, the missile has been modified to avoid detection by the anti-missile defence systems.
Meanwhile, after previous tough criticism of Russia, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday said "there is no question of launching an all-out war with Russia".
He said: "No-one ever doubted that a Russian army of up to 800,000 people was going to defeat a Georgian army of up to 18,000 people. Indeed, that has happened over the last two weeks. The question, though, for Russia is whether it wants to suffer the isolation, the loss of respect and the loss of trust that comes from that."
A statement signed by Mr Miliband, along with the foreign ministers of the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, said they "deplored" Moscow's "excessive use of military force" in Georgia.
Moscow was offered one supportive comment, however. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, Russia's closest ex-Soviet ally, said the Kremlin "had no other moral choice" but to recognise the Georgian regions.
The crisis flared early this month when Georgian forces tried to retake South Ossetia and Russia launched an overwhelming counter-attack.
Russian forces swept the Georgian army out of the rebel region and are still occupying some areas of Georgia proper.
THE USS Mount Whitney, a Blue Ridge class command ship, is the flagship of the United States navy's 6th Fleet.
It is also the command and control ship for Nato's southern European strike force.
It is currently based out of Gaeta, Italy.
Considered by some to be the most sophisticated command, control, communications, computer and intelligence (C4I) ship ever commissioned, Mount Whitney incorporates various elements of the most advanced C4I electronic equipment and gives the embarked joint task-force commander the capability to control all other US naval sea units.
Mount Whitney can receive and transmit large amounts of secure data from anywhere through HF, UHF, VHF, SHF and EHF communications paths.
The vessel carries little in the way of armaments, other than guns for close-range defence.
Mount Whitney typically carries enough food to feed the crew of over 300 for 90 days and can transport supplies to support an emergency evacuation of 3,000 people.
Its distilling units make over 100,000 gallons of fresh water a day.
Traditional allies of Moscow denounce force
CHINA and several central Asian nations rebuffed Russia's hopes of international support for its actions in Georgia, issuing a statement yesterday denouncing the use of force and calling for respect for every country's territorial integrity.
A joint declaration from the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, or SCO, also offered some support for Russia's "active role in promoting peace" following a ceasefire, but overall it appeared to increase Moscow's international isolation.
The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, had appealed to the SCO alliance – whose members include Russia, China and four central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – for unanimous support of Moscow's response to Georgia's "aggression".
But none of the other alliance members joined Russia in recognising the independence claims of Georgia's separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mr Medvedev's search for support in Asia had raised fears that the alliance would turn the furore over Georgia into a broader confrontation between East and West, pitting the United States and Europe against their two main Cold War foes. But China has traditionally been wary of endorsing separatists abroad, mindful of its own problems with Tibet and Muslims in the western territory of Xinjiang.
The joint statement, which was unanimously endorsed, made a point of stressing the sanctity of borders – two days after Russia sought to redraw Georgia's territory.
"The participants… underscore the need for respect of the historical and cultural traditions of each country and each people, and for efforts aimed at preserving the unity of the state and its territorial integrity," the declaration said.
Internet maps 'are wiping out' British landmarks
THE internet is wiping thousands of British landmarks off the map, a leading geographical society warned yesterday.
Churches, ancient woodlands and stately homes are in danger of being forgotten as internet maps fail to include the traditional landmarks, said Mary Spence, the president of the British Cartographic Society.
In recent years, web applications such as Google Earth have become a popular way for people to search for maps and satellite images.
Speaking yesterday at a Royal Geographic Society conference, Ms Spence said: "Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history – not to mention Britain's remarkable geography – at a stroke by not including them on maps which millions of us now use every day.
"We're in real danger of losing what makes maps so unique; giving us a feel for a place even if we've never been there."
But Ed Parsons, the geospatial technologist at Google, said the way in which people used maps was changing. He said: "Internet maps can now be personalised, allowing people to include landmarks and information that are of interest to them.
"Anyone can create their own maps, or use experiences to collaborate with others in charting their local knowledge.
"These traditional landmarks are still on the map, but people need to search for them," Mr Parsons said.
"Interactive maps will display precisely the information people want, when they want it.
"You couldn't possibly have everything already pinpointed."
1936 treaty comes under the spotlight
THE Montreux Convention cited by Nato with regard to Black Sea access may be regarded by some as an obscure treaty, but amid the current high level of tension in international politics with Russia, its terms are coming under close scrutiny.
The agreement, signed on 20 July, 1936, gives Turkey full control over the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardanelles and regulates military activity in the region.
It permits Turkey to remilitarise the straits and imposes new restrictions on the passage of combatant vessels.
The treaty also guarantees the free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime.
It severely restricts the passage of non-Turkish military vessels and prohibits some types of warships, such as aircraft carriers, from passing through the straits.
The terms of the convention have been a source of controversy over the years, most notably concerning Russia's military access to the Mediterranean.
Under the agreement, Turkey must be notified 15 days before military ships sail into the Black Sea, and warships cannot remain longer than 21 days. The convention applies limits on individual and aggregate tonnage and numbers.
These limitations effectively preclude the transit of major "capital" warships and submarines of non-Black Sea powers through the straits, unless exempted under Article 17.
That clause permits a naval force of any tonnage or composition to pay a courtesy visit of limited duration to a port in the straits, at the invitation of the Turkish government.