Clifford Levy in Moscow
The Sydney Morning Herald August 30, 2008
AS RUSSIA struggled to rally international support for its military action in Georgia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has lashed out at the US, contending that the White House may have orchestrated the conflict to benefit one of the candidates in the presidential election.
Putin’s comments in a television interview, his most extensive to date on Russia’s decision to send troops into Georgia earlier this month, sought to present the military operation as a response to brazen, Cold War-style provocations by the US.
In tones that seemed alternately angry and mischievous, Putin suggested the Bush administration may have tried to create a crisis that would influence American voters in the choice of a successor to President George W Bush.
“The suspicion would arise that someone in the United States created this conflict on purpose to stir up the situation and to create an advantage for one of the candidates in the competitive race for the presidency in the United States," Putin said in an interview with CNN.
Putin did not specify which candidate he had in mind, but there was no doubt that he was referring to Republican Senator John McCain.
McCain is loathed in the Kremlin because he has a close relationship with Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and has called for imposing stiff penalties on Russia, including ejecting it from the Group of 8 industrialised nations.
Putin offered scant evidence to support his assertion, and the White House called his comments absurd.
But they underscored the depth of the rift between Moscow and Washington over the Georgia crisis, which flared three weeks ago when the Georgian military tried to reclaim a breakaway enclave allied with Russia.
They also suggested that the Russian leader was deeply concerned about the possibility McCain, widely viewed here as having a strong bias against Russia, could become president.
Russia has been struggling to persuade the outside world to back its action in Georgia.
On Thursday, China and four other countries meeting with Russia for the annual summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security alliance, declined to back Russia’s military action in a joint communique.
Putin’s interview came after his protege, President Dmitri Medvedev, had spoken to several foreign news media outlets this week as part of a concerted move by the Kremlin to counter Georgia’s public relations offensive in the international media.
Medvedev’s tone was less harsh, though he also criticised the West.
On Thursday, Putin also said Russian defence officials believed US citizens had been in the conflict area supporting the Georgian military when it attacked the separatist region of South Ossetia.
“Even during the Cold War, during the time of tough confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, we have always avoided direct clashes between our civilians, let alone our service men," Putin said.
“We have serious reasons to believe that directly, in the combat zone, citizens of the United States were present."
“If the facts are confirmed," he added, “that United States citizens were present in the combat zone, that means only one thing — that they could be there only on the direct instruction of their leadership. And if this is so, then it means that American citizens are in the combat zone, performing their duties, and they can only do that following a direct order from their leader, and not on their own initiative."
In Washington, White House spokesman Dana Perino dismissed Putin’s remarks.
“To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate just sounds not rational," she said.