Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his December 19 press conference. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Georgians wanted Russian soldiers to "take" then-president Mikheil Saakashvili during the 2008 war over South Ossetia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
During his marathon press conference Thursday, Putin was asked by a reporter from Georgian television station Rustavi-2 about Russia-Georgia relations. As he did with many questions, Putin took the opportunity to hold forth at some length, and he described the very warm feelings he had for Georgian people, and that Georgians and Russians have for one another generally. Most intriguingly, he suggested that Georgians were rooting for Russia to defeat Georgia, or at least Saakashvili:
Even during the most difficult time, when fighting was underway in the Caucasus [reference to the August, 2008 war], relations with the Georgian people were very good. And it was confirmed even during those difficult days and hours and demonstrated in attitude of Georgians themselves towards Russia. Don’t remember if I have ever said it publicly, but in one of the towns a grandpa approached our soldiers and told him: ‘What do you want here? What are you looking for here? Go over there – Tbilisi and take Mishka [referring to then President Mikheil Saakashvili]’.”
“You know we had losses among our military servicemen. Aircraft was downed, a pilot ejected and landed somewhere; a Georgian babushka approached and told him: ‘Come here son’; she took him and fed him. Then he was sent towards the Russian military."
Putin touched on the conflict another time, as well, when a reporter asked him if, as in South Ossetia, he would send in Russian forces to Crimea if the situation in Ukraine worsened. Putin answered:
You compared the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia with the situation in Crimea. To me, this is an incorrect comparison. Nothing in Crimea is happening comparable to what happened in South Ossetia and with Abkhazia. Because on these territories declared independence and there was, unfortunately, massive, if we talk about the regional context, bloody interethnic conflict. This is not the first conflict of its kind, if we keep in mind 1919 and 1921, when there were punitive operations connected with the collapse of the Russian empire and these territories said they wanted to remain part of Russia, and not in an independent Georgia. So there is nothing new here.
In addition, as you know, there were peacekeepers on this territory to stop the bloodshed, having international status and consisting mostly of Russian soldiers, although there were also Georgian soldiers and representatives of the then-unrecognized republic. Our reaction was not only connected with the protection of Russian citizens, although it was not a small factor, but the connection was with the attack on our peacekeepers and the murder of our soldiers. That's the issue, that was the essence of those events.
In Crimea, thank God, there is nothing similar and, I hope, there won't be. We have an agreement on the presence of the Russian fleet there, it was extended, as you know -- extended, I think, in the interests of both governments, both countries. And the presence of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, in Crimea, is a serious stabilizing factor, in my opinion, in international and regional politics.
Putin also sought to distinguish today's Georgian leadership from that of Saakashvili, saying "Now there is a certain reality; we cannot neglect it. But still, we see some signals coming from the new leadership of Georgia." Other Russian officials have tended to be critical of Georgia's new government and its continued ambitions toward joining the EU and NATO. So it's somewhat interesting that on this occasion Putin chose to be the good cop, and emphasizing more what Georgia and Russia have in common than what divides them.