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A course set for conflict

Russia was long ready to act, and Georgian bravado lit the fuse.

August 17, 2008|Borzou Daragahi and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

TBILISI, GEORGIA — The Russian diplomat said he couldn't make it. He had a flat tire. The Georgian official in charge of bringing breakaway regions back into the fold was incredulous.

Temur Iakobashvili had driven up to South Ossetia from the Georgian capital to begin Russian-mediated peace talks to end months of escalating fighting in the pro-Moscow republic. But his Russian counterpart hadn't shown up.

"Can't you change the tire?" Iakobashvili says he asked Yuri Popov. No, the Russian diplomat replied. The spare was flat, too.

Less than 12 hours later, war between Russia and Georgia began, a conflict that has roiled the volatile, oil-rich Caucasus, raised tensions between Moscow and the West and nearly crushed this small U.S. ally.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 19, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Georgia's military: An article in Sunday's Section A about the run-up to the war in the Caucasus said Georgia's military budget was tripled to $3.2 billion. The budget has tripled in the last three years to $1 billion for fiscal year 2008.

But long before that flat tire, both sides had set their course for conflict, analysts and officials in Washington, Tbilisi and Moscow say: A combination of Russia's relentless drive toward confrontation and Georgian hubris made last week's warfare inevitable.

To some observers, the course was set after the 2004 election of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. On Russia's southern border, Georgia had been under Moscow's sway for centuries. Now, the U.S.- educated Saakashvili was turning the country into a staunchly nationalist, pro-American laboratory for Velvet Revolution-style agitation.

A trove of evidence strongly suggests that Russia was preparing the logistics for war well before Aug. 7. As long as three years ago, diplomats, officials and analysts say, Moscow started waging a multi-pronged propaganda, military and economic campaign against Georgia as it moved hurriedly and provocatively into the Western sphere -- and toward joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia's Cold War nemesis.

"The political decision was made in April," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow who writes for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank, and for Russian publications. "It was final. Preparations were being put in place for a year beforehand."

Many say the Georgians, with the United States in their corner, became overly confident of their capabilities.

"These are the most romantic people in the world. They're very gallant, in the stupid sense," said Bruce P. Jackson, a close Bush administration ally who has worked extensively with Saakashvili and other leaders in the emerging democracies of the former Soviet bloc. "Do they really listen? They're very much 'the Charge of the Light Brigade' people. It has a lot to do with personal honor."

At any moment, analysts say, Georgia might have staved off a military attack by heeding Moscow's warnings and renouncing or at least qualifying its desire to join NATO.

Instead, Saakashvili reportedly made jokes about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's height.


Delicate balance

Eduard Shevardnadze, too, was disliked by Putin's team. The Georgian president who preceded Saakashvili was the man who, as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister, oversaw the end of the Soviet Union and the dismemberment of its empire -- an event that Putin described as the greatest disaster of the 20th century.

But the diplomat managed to balance Georgia's pro-Western tilt with enough deference to Moscow to keep it mostly off the Kremlin's radar.

"Shevardnadze was very careful," said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "He balanced everything."

Not so Saakashvili. Propelled to power in 2004 in the so-called Rose Revolution, he immediately began to push his country headlong toward the West, purging the Soviet-era bureaucracy, deregulating the economy and cozying up to Washington by sending 2,000 troops to Iraq. In the spring of 2005, he and thousands of Georgians proudly cheered on President Bush when he visited Tbilisi and said the United States would support their progress toward Western-style democracy.

"Everyone was expecting that something would happen because of Saakashvili's Western ways," said one European diplomat here in the Georgian capital, who like others contacted for this report spoke on condition of anonymity.

Analysts noted a stepping up of an anti-Georgian propaganda campaign in the Russian media about three years ago. In the weeks before the war, Russian media publicized opinion polls depicting tiny Georgia as Russia's worst enemy.

Tensions increased in 2005 after Georgia expelled two Russian diplomats it accused of espionage. Russia deported Georgians living in Moscow, sending them back to Tbilisi in cargo planes.

In the middle of the winter of 2006, South Ossetian separatists who have been agitating against Georgia for nearly two decades allegedly blew up the gas pipeline to Georgia, leaving the country without electricity or heat for two weeks.

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