Emboldened by his country's clear victory over Georgia in a seven-day war this month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday he would initiate diplomatic ties with the two regions.
The move was immediately condemned by European leaders and the United States.
Georgia's embattled President, Mikheil Saakashvili, accused Russia of further aggression.
“Russia's decision today confirms that its invasion of Georgia was part of a broader, premeditated plan to redraw the map of Europe,” Mr. Saakashvili said in a statement Tuesday night.
“The Russian Federation's actions are an attempt to militarily annex a sovereign nation – the nation of Georgia.”
U.S. President George W. Bush demanded Tuesday that Russia reverse its “irresponsible decision” to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, Agence-France Presse reported from Crawford, Tex.
“The United States condemns the decision,” he said in a statement from his ranch, warning that “Russia's action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations” on the future of Georgia.
Despite the escalating war of words between Moscow and the West and a deepening freeze in relations that has some warning of a new Cold War, Mr. Bush did not lay out any specific retaliatory steps.
On Wednesday, a senior British official is scheduled to fly to Ukraine to build a coalition to counter Russia's conflict with Georgia.
Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, Romania and Poland also criticized the move.
South Ossetia, a mountainous region sandwiched between Georgia and southern Russia, was the catalyst for the conflict this month when Georgia tried to reclaim the region with a military strike. Russia responded by sending troops and tanks into South Ossetia, then invading Georgia proper.
Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia after separatist wars in the 1990s. Since then, Russia has provided military and political support to both regions. It has also handed out passports to residents in both regions and the ruble is the form of currency. No other country in the world has recognized these enclaves.
The regions don't have self-sustaining economies and some see Russia's involvement in both regions as a gradual attempt to bring the republics into the Russian Federation.
“This is not the end of the story in Georgia,” said Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Russia's military is encircling Georgia.”
In recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia risks isolating itself diplomatically, but it doesn't seem to care, Ms. Lipman said.
“[Russia] wants to aggravate rather than calm down passions. This is an extremely alarming development.”
Mr. Medvedev, in his televised statement, did not appear concerned about alienating Europe and the United States.
“We're not afraid of anything,” Mr. Medvedev declared when asked whether he feared the standoff would lead to a new Cold War.
The President also condemned a buildup of NATO ships in the Black Sea, said by the West to be delivering aid.
However, other analysts said Russia's recognition of the regions was inevitable, after Georgia's strike on South Ossetia, which killed scores of civilians and Russian peacekeepers.
In Russia, polls show the majority of the population believes Russia's response was justified and many view Georgia as the aggressor that had to be stopped.
Historian Natalia Narochnitskaya said Russia's military triumph marks the “end of the epoch of a weak Russia and restores a multipolar world order.
“Russia did what it had to do,” she said.
However, Ms. Narochnitskaya disagreed that the move was a Russian bid to annex the regions.
South Ossetia's leaders have, in the past, stated that they aspire to join Russia, but Abkhazia wants to become an independent state.
“It's too early to tell,” Ms. Narochnitskaya said. “Russia has no such goals. It will be up to [South Ossetia and Abkhazia].
Mr. Medvedev made the announcement just one day after Russia's parliament voted to recognize the independence of both Georgian enclaves. Few expected him to move so quickly.
But Mr. Medvedev said Russia showed patience and restraint in its past relationship with Georgia.
“This is not an easy choice, but it is the only way to save the lives of people,” he said, urging other states to follow suit.
The President said Russia tried to solve its border problems with Georgia through negotiations, but argued Moscow had no choice when Georgia used force to reclaim South Ossetia.
Russia's military is still in parts of Georgia, having signed a peace plan that calls for Russia to move its troops into positions held before the war erupted.
In the South Ossetia capital of Tskhinvali, which bore the brunt of Georgia's military strike, people poured onto the streets, firing shots in the air and waving flags.
“All my life, I have been waiting for this moment,” South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity told a crowd gathered on the central square of the capital. “Our people have been waiting for 18 years.”
With reports from Agence France-Presse and Reuters