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Gideon Rachman on Russia and Georgia

Today FT blogger Gideon Rachman speculates that Russia is itching to manufacture a crisis with Georgia in order to have an excuse to stay in the presidency. Interesting theory, but a long shot, in my opinion.

Does Putin have Georgia on his mind? Yesterday I had lunch with Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia. Saakashvili is one of the most media-friendly heads-of-state I have ever come across. He is fluent in millions of languages and seems to enjoy the company of journalists – there were three FT people there yesterday, as well as a smattering of presidential aides. “Misha” was on jovial form. (The dining room of the Ritz is a convivial spot) But there is no disguising the pressure that he and Georgia are under. Having an angry and paranoid Russia as your neighbour does not make for a relaxing life. Back in March, there was a helicopter attack on government buildings in Georgia’s Kodori gorge – which the Georgians assume was the work of the Russians. The Russians claim the Georgians attacked their own buildings to make Russia look bad. Saakashvili claims that he is doing his utmost not to goad Russia and says that he is determined not to say provocative things in public. But since the Georgians are obsessed by the Russian threat, they find it hard to keep off the subject. When somebody around the table expressed the opinion that Vladimir Putin would try to find an excuse not to step down as Russian president next year, Saakashvili mused – “Well he would need some sort of crisis to justify doing that. I wonder where he could find that?” Then he laughed darkly. The Georgians clearly reckon that the Russians are itching to manufacture a crisis with Georgia – and the continuing controversy over the Russian-backed breakaway province of South Ossettia is an obvious potential source of trouble. And while Saakashvili is doubtless sincere in his desire to avoid doing anything on a day-to-day basis that will provoke the Kremlin, there is one Georgian policy that the Russians regard as a standing affront – and that is Georgia’s unshakeable determination to join Nato. The Georgians hope that they can achieve their ambition by 2009. But having yet another part of the old Soviet Union join Nato will feed Russian fears of encirclement. Saakashvili reckons that the Kremlin is already feeling paranoid about political developments in western Europe. In the last two years, Vladimir Putin has lost three firm friends – Gerhard Schroder in Germany, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, and now Jacques Chirac in France. The Georgians reckon that Nicolas Sarkozy, who seems likely to succeed Chirac next month, is very sound on Russia and a firm friend of Georgia. But if Georgia really does join Nato, the US and the western Europeans may one day have to consider just how far their friendship extends. Nato is based around the mutual defence guarantee of Article Five. If the Russians were to launch a helicopter-gunship attack on Georgia – once the Georgians were actually Nato members – would we all rush to the defence of Georgia, even at the risk of a military confrontation with Russia? Or would the other Nato members decide that, in the last resort, this is “a far-off country of which we know little.”