PITSUNDA, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia on Tuesday and assured it of Moscow's military support, an act of defiance to Western governments that have condemned Russia's backing for the separatists.
Abkhazia and another Georgian region, South Ossetia, threw off Tbilisi's control in fighting in the early 1990s. Putin has stepped up military, economic and political support for the separatist regions in the past few years.
Putin arrived in Abkhazia's Black Sea resort of Pitsunda a week after U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence visited Tbilisi and issued a condemnation of the Russian presence on Georgian territory.
At a meeting with Raul Khadzhimba, leader of the separatist administration, Putin said Moscow was committed to building up a joint Russian-Abkhaz military contingent to ensure the security of people in Abkhazia.
"The most important thing is that we have entirely special relations with Abkhazia," Putin said at the meeting.
"We reliably guarantee the security, self-sufficiency and independence of Abkhazia. I am sure that will continue to be the case."
Putin's visit coincided with the ninth anniversary of a flare-up in fighting in South Ossetia, which led to Russia sending in troops and also recognizing both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as sovereign states. Most other countries still consider them part of Georgia.
Russia said it had to act in 2008 to defend civilians in both entities from Georgian military attacks. Western governments say Russia fomented the separatist conflicts to frustrate Georgia's drive to join NATO and the European Union.
Speaking to Reuters after laying flowers on the graves of Georgian soldiers who died in 2008, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said: "Today, while grieving about the losses we have had during this tragedy, we see the president of the Russian Federation visiting Georgian Abkhazia."
He said Putin's visit was "a violation of international law and trying to legitimize the historical injustice that the Russian Federation committed against Georgia".
A NATO spokesman said Putin's trip should have been agreed with the Georgian authorities beforehand.
"President Putin's visit to the Abkhazia region of Georgia — on the ninth anniversary of the armed conflict — is detrimental to international efforts to find a peaceful and negotiated settlement," the spokesman said in an emailed statement.
Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in TBILISI and Gabriela Baczynska in BRUSSELS; Writing by Jack Stubbs and Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones