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Originally published August 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 18, 2008 at 12:02 AM

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How spat grew into Russia-U.S. showdown

Five months ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, a darling of this city's diplomatic dinner-party circuit, came to town to push...

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Five months ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, a darling of this city's diplomatic dinner-party circuit, came to town to push for America to muscle his tiny country of 4 million into NATO.

On Capitol Hill and at the White House, State Department and Pentagon, the brash and hyperkinetic Saakashvili urged the West not to appease Russia by rejecting Georgia's NATO ambitions, and he later pronounced his visit a success.

Three weeks later, President Bush went to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on the invitation of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. There, he received a message: Putin warned that the push to offer Ukraine and Georgia membership in NATO was crossing Russia's "red lines," said an administration official close to the talks.

Afterward, Bush said Putin had been very truthful and "that's the only way you can find common ground."

It was one of many moments when the United States seemed to have missed, or gambled it could manage, the depth of Russia's anger and the resolve of the Georgian president to provoke the Russians.

The story of how a 16-year, low-grade conflict over who should rule two small mountainous regions in the Caucasus erupted into the most serious post-Cold War showdown between the U.S. and Russia is one of miscalculation, missed signals and overreaching, according to diplomats and senior officials in the United States, the European Union, Russia and Georgia. In many cases, the officials would speak only on condition of anonymity.

It is also the story of how both Democrats and Republicans have misread Russia's determination to dominate its traditional sphere of influence.

As with many foreign-policy issues, this one highlighted a continuing fight within the administration. Vice President Dick Cheney and his aides and allies, who saw Georgia as a model for their democracy promotion campaign, pushed to sell Georgia more arms, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, so that it could defend itself against possible Russian aggression.

On the other side, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national-security adviser Stephen Hadley and William Burns, the new undersecretary of state for political affairs, argued that such a sale would provoke Russia, which would see it as arrogant meddling.

The officials describe three leaders on a collision course. Bush, rewarding Georgia for its troop contribution to Iraq, promised NATO membership and its accompanying umbrella of U.S. military support.

Putin, angry at what he saw as U.S. infringement in his backyard, decided Georgia was the line in the sand the West would not be allowed to cross.

Saakashvili, unabashedly pro-American, was determined to show Georgia was no longer a vassal of Russia.

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With Russia, flush with oil money, a booming economy and a rebuilt military no longer bogged down in Chechnya, the stars were aligned for a confrontation in which Putin could, with a quick show of force, teach a lesson to the U.S., Georgia and all of the former Soviet satellites and republics seeking closer ties with the West.

"We have probably failed to understand that the Russians are really quite serious when they say, 'We have interests and we're going to defend them,' " said James Collins, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001.

"Russia does have interests, and at some point they're going to stand up and draw lines that are not simply to be ignored."

Seeds of confrontation

The stage was set in January 2004, when Saakashvili handily won the presidency and made the return of separatist areas to Georgian control a key platform plank.

It was a potent theme. Georgia had lost the wars against separatists in the 1990s, and Russia's involvement stung Georgians.

Georgia increased its troop contribution to Iraq, and in return the United States provided more military training. The Georgians saw this as a step toward building a military that could settle problems with the separatists at home.

Whether they intended to build a military for fighting or deterrence is unclear. U.S. officials said they repeatedly told their Georgian counterparts that the Iraq mission should not be taken as a sign of U.S. support, or as a prelude, for operations against the separatists.

Nevertheless, the career foreign-policy establishment worried that the wrong signals were being sent.

"We were training Saakashvili's army, and he was getting at least a corps of highly trained individuals, which he could use for adventures," said one former senior intelligence analyst, who covered Georgia and Russia at the time. "The feeling in the intelligence community was that this was a very high-risk endeavor."

By last November, Saakashvili's democratic credentials were becoming checkered. Accused by the opposition of corruption, arrogance and centralization, he struck back against demonstrators and declared a state of emergency.

After he was re-elected this year, Saakashvili turned back to the enclaves. Georgia now had new military equipment and the experience of Iraq. Russia had engaged in several brief air attacks and had shot down a pilotless reconnaissance plane over Georgian soil.

Inside the Saakashvili government, officials seethed. Batu Kutelia, a first deputy minister of defense, framed the presence of Russia in the enclaves with Caucasian intensity. "Tell me," he asked a New York Times reporter over dinner this spring, "would you share your wife?"

Russian anger

Russia, too, was laying down its markers, protesting the West's intent to recognize the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, set on independence after the long Balkans wars of the 1990s. The Russians insisted independence for Kosovo would be a serious affront.

Last February, the U.S. and the European Union, over Russia's objections, recognized an independent Kosovo.

Putin and other Russian officials drew a parallel with Kosovo: If the West could redraw boundaries against the wishes of Russia and its ally Serbia, the Russians argued, then Russia could redraw boundaries in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

By April, before the Russians had a chance to grow accustomed to an independent Kosovo, they were confronted with what they saw as more meddling. On April 3, the night before the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, Bush attended a dinner with European leaders and annoyed the German and French by lobbying long and hard for Ukraine and Georgia to be welcomed into a Membership Acton Plan that prepares nations for NATO membership.

Bush lost that battle but won two others the next day that angered Russia: NATO leaders agreed to endorse a U.S. missile-defense system based in Eastern Europe, and the Europeans said invitations to the membership plan for Georgia and Ukraine might come in a year, at the next summit.

Putin, in Bucharest to speak, was cordial but clear, saying Russia viewed "the appearance of a powerful military bloc" on its borders "as a direct threat" to its security.

"The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice," Putin said. "National security is not based on promises."

The next day, Bush and Putin went to Sochi.

"It definitely wasn't what I would call a 'look-into-your-eyes-and-see-your-soul' meeting," said an administration official, referring to Bush's famous line after he first met Putin. Talks between Bush, Putin and his successor, Dmitri Medvedev centered on Ukraine and Georgia, and Putin warned again against the NATO push.

It appeared the Bush administration misread the depth of Russia's fury. An administration official said the Americans understood Russia was angry but believed they could forestall a worsening of the relationship by looking for other possibilities for cooperation.

On April 16, Putin took action. In one of his last formal acts as president, he issued an order that Russia was broadly expanding support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and would establish legal connections with the regions' separatist governments.

Washington was quick to rally around Saakashvili, as was Sen. John McCain, the Republicans' presumptive presidential nominee. Days later, Sen. Barack Obama, the leading Democratic candidate, said he was "deeply troubled."

On April 21, Georgia accused Russia of shooting down the pilotless Georgian plane over Abkhazia. Putin expressed "bewilderment" to Saakashvili at Georgia's sending reconnaissance planes over Abkhazia.

On April 30, in Congress, members from both sides of the aisle signed on to a House resolution denouncing Russia and praising Saakashvili "for his far-reaching peace proposals."

Bush administration officials have been adamant that they told Saakashvili the U.S. would not back Georgia militarily in a fight with Russia, but a senior administration official acknowledged "it's possible that Georgians may have confused the cheerleading from Washington with something else."

In May and June, Russia increased the number of troops in South Ossetia and sent troops into Abkhazia, who Moscow said were going for humanitarian purposes, Georgian and U.S. officials said.

Rice traveled to Tbilisi in July, where, aides said, she privately told Saakashvili not to let Russia provoke him into a fight he couldn't win. But her public comments were far stronger and more supportive.

The Russians and the Georgians give different accounts of who provoked whom in the weeks before Aug. 8.

While the Bush administration has blamed Russia and Putin, some administration officials said the Georgian military had drawn up a "concept of operations" for crisis in South Ossetia that called for its army to rapidly establish firm control.

As described by David Smith of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, the document sets out goals for the Georgian Armed Forces and refers to the threat of conflict in the separatist regions.

U.S. officials said they had clearly told their Georgian counterparts the plan had little chance of success, given Kremlin statements promising to protect the local population from Georgian "aggression" — and the presence of Russia's overwhelming military force along the border.

The shelling from South Ossetia to Georgia proper increased significantly in August. On the morning of Aug. 1, five Georgian police officers were wounded by two remotely controlled explosions on a bypass road in South Ossetia, Georgian officials said.

Troops from Georgia battled separatist fighters, killing at least six people. The Georgians accused the South Ossetian separatists of firing at Georgian towns behind the shelter of Russian peacekeepers.

On Aug. 6, the separatists fired on several Georgian villages, Georgian officials said. The Russian Defense Ministry and South Ossetian officials say Georgia provoked it by shelling Russian peacekeeping positions in Tskhinvali.

The Georgians said the separatists shelled them all day Aug. 7. Georgia Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili called the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe, Daniel Fried, and said her country was under attack and had to protect its people. Fried, said a senior U.S. official, told the Georgian not to go into South Ossetia.

The Georgians moved in Aug. 8.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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