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Lavrov rejects Cheney's attack on Russia

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  • Russia rejects sharp criticism by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney
  • Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says conflict may have isolated Moscow
  • Lavrov backs away from allegations U.S. personnel were involved in combat
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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Russia on Friday rejected sharp criticism by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney that its intervention in Georgia raises doubts about Moscow's reliability as an international partner.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey  Lavrov has rejected U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's criticism.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has rejected U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's criticism.

In an exclusive CNN interview, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged the conflict may have isolated Moscow from the international community. But he said Russia would be ready to work with any U.S. administration on strategic issues like non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

"We are not interested in bad relations with the United States," Lavrov said. "It wouldn't be our choice, but if the United States does not want to cooperate with us on one or another issue, we cannot impose."

Cheney met Thursday with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi and afterward criticized Russian military actions as an invasion of sovereign territory and "an illegitimate unilateral attempt" to change Georgia's borders by force.

"Russia's actions have cast grave doubt on Russia's intentions and on its reliability as an international partner," Cheney said.

Diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Washington have climbed in recent weeks, with Russia accusing the U.S. of orchestrating the conflict in Georgia for political purposes. Video Watch Cheney in Georgia »

Lavrov downplayed those accusations, laying responsibility for the violence at Saakashvili's feet. Lavrov said he did not believe anyone was able to control the Georgian leader. Video Watch CNN's interview with Lavrov »

He also backed away from allegations made to CNN by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that U.S. personnel were involved in combat operations against Russian troops in Georgia.

Lavrov said Russia entered Georgia simply to save the lives of Russian citizens.

"We acted because we had no other choice," Lavrov said. "We had no other choice [than] to ensure not just the security of Abkhazians and South Ossetians, but their very survival. Georgia, too, many times in its history, including very recent history, tried to basically eliminate these people."

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Abkhazia and South Ossetia lie within Georgia along its northern border with Russia, and have strong Russian-backed separatist movements.

A 1992 agreement placed a mixed peacekeeping force of Russians, Georgians, and South Ossetians inside the territory. They maintained a fragile peace between separatists and Georgian forces until Georgia's military launched attacks inside the territory August 7.

The Russian military responded by entering South Ossetia and Georgia.

Lavrov did issue a warning that the turmoil in Georgia may not be at an end, saying Georgian forces had not confined themselves to areas agreed under the terms of the EU-brokered cease-fire.

He added U.S. and NATO plans to rebuild the Georgian army were troubling, especially given "daily rhetoric" from Georgia that the conflict wasn't over.

Russia has since become the only country to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a move that signals Moscow's firm support.

Critics have accused Russia of using the international community's recognition of an independent Kosovo -- a move opposed by Russia -- as an excuse.

Lavrov said the two couldn't be compared because Kosovo was not under attack, and those who recognized its independence "were making a geo-political point."

Lavrov said Russia had no plans to enter Ukraine, which like Georgia, is a former Soviet republic eager to join NATO.

Ukraine's National Security Chief Anatoly Grytsenko said he had strong evidence Russia was distributing thousands of passports to Ukrainian citizens in the Crimean peninsula, a part of Ukraine. The purpose, Grytsenko said, would be to create a Russian population on whose behalf Russia could intervene in the future.

"People saying things does not require me to comment on any stupidity," Lavrov said. "I can only tell you that we don't need to artificially create some support for Russia in the Crimean peninsula."

Russia seeks no problems with Ukraine, Lavrov said.

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Cheney said this week that Washington welcomes NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, but Lavrov said that would be "a mistake."

Asked what action Russia might take if the two become members, Lavrov said: "I hope this doesn't happen and I don't even want to discuss some hypothetical eventualities. NATO members have seen what Georgia did. NATO members, in spite of their public statements and solidarity position, know better... so it would be their decision, but I hope it would be an educated decision."

CNN's Matthew Chance contributed to this report.

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