KIEV: Ukraine outraged Russia on Friday by expelling Moscow’s top envoy to a vital Black Sea region now governed by the pro-Western former president of Georgia.
The State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said Kiev had declared Moscow’s consulate general in Odessa “persona non grata” for conducting unnamed activities “incompatible” with his diplomatic work.
“The security service will continue to identify foreigners who work against our government using their diplomatic status as cover,” the SBU said in a statement.
It added that the Russian identified by Moscow as career diplomat Valery Shibeko had already left Ukraine.
The scenic southern port of Odessa was rocked last year by clashes between pro-Kremlin protesters and Kiev supporters that killed more than 40 people and briefly prompted fears of a possible military response from Russia.
Most of the victims were Moscow backers who died when a government building in which they took cover caught fire after being pelted by Molotov cocktails launched by a Ukrainian nationalist mob.
The May 2014 incident came just a month into a war between Kiev forces and pro-Russian militias that have claimed the lives of 6,500 people in eastern Ukraine.
Fears of the conflict spreading prompted Kiev to focus on restoring calm in government-held Odessa and other lands to the west of the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula.
But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shocked many by appointing Mikheil Saakashvili the former president of ex-Soviet Georgia who waged a 2008 war with Russia and is still despised by Moscow as the region’s governor in May.
Saakashvili has since launched a high-profile campaign to eradicate local corruption and cement Kiev’s rule.
It was not immediately clear if the acting consulate general’s deportation was in any way linked to the ardently anti-Kremlin former Georgian president.
Yet Moscow’s response was swift.
“This is another unfriendly step aimed at artificially fomenting tensions in our relations with Ukraine,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the local news agency.
Karasin hinted strongly that Moscow would now deport a top Ukrainian official “in line with diplomatic practice”.
Saakashvili has soared to the top of Ukraine’s public approval ratings by publicly castigating and sacking security and customs officials who had long been under suspicion of accepting monumental bribes.
But his no-holds-barred approach appears to be spreading beyond Odessa and taking ever more direct aim at Moscow.
The undisguised aversion shared by Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin helped set off a five-day war in 2008 that resulted in Moscow’s effective takeover of two of its southern neighbour’s separatist regions.
Russia now recognises Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia provinces as independent countries a view shared by Nicaragua and Venezuela but no other major state.
The devastating loss prompted Saakashvili’s flight from Georgia after his final term ended in 2013. He then joined the pro-European protests that swept Kiev and led to the bloody ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-backed leadership in February 2014.
Saakashvili took another stab at Putin on Friday by appointing one of the Kremlin’s most vocal and respected young Russian critics as Odessa’s deputy governor.
Maria Gaidar is a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government graduate and daughter of the late post-Soviet economic restructuring mastermind Yegor Gaidar.
Saakashvili called Maria Gaidar “one of the brightest Russian political leaders to be fighting the Putin regime.”
Gaidar herself vowed on Friday to help Saakashvili, “carry out genuine reforms”.
There was no initial response from Moscow to her appointment.