Q&A: Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili on Russia Fight

Even as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a halt to military activities in Georgia, Georgian officials reported continuing air and land attacks Tuesday. Since the conflict began last week, about 2,000 deaths have been reported, many of them civilians.

The escalating battle, which began last Thursday when Georgian troops and separatists in South Ossetia exchanged fire, has been a major test for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. He came to power in 2003 after the Rose Revolution, which ended the rule of former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili has closely allied himself with the United States, often irritating Russia. Critics say Saakashvili pushed the Russians too far when he made aggressive moves in South Ossetia, a separatist enclave.

American-educated, Saakashvili has been a constant in Western media this week, making his case that Russia is to blame for the current conflict. On Monday, while touring a damaged building in Gori, the sound of a Russian jet led Saakashvili's bodyguards to push him to the ground and cover him with flak jackets, but no one was injured. NEWSWEEK's Anna Nemtsova caught up with the beleaguered president in Tbilisi on Monday. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did this all begin?
Mikheil Saakashvili: First of all, the Russian troops in North Ossetia [part of the Russian Federation] were massing for the last four months. They called it "exercises." But every time I would hear about these exercises, the Russians would say that they were preparing for military actions inside Georgia. They would say it publicly. President Putin would always hint at that. He said, "We need different ways to get to Georgia." So we knew Russia was preparing. We were worried about it. But there wasn't much we could do about it.

Now, in South Ossetia, there had been tensions for years. That's nothing new. So when the latest round of confrontations had started we didn't take it too seriously. I mean, they tried to blow up houses and opened fire on [a Georgian] police convoy. We returned fire and killed five or six of them. I thought this would end there. But then they started to bombard villages we controlled with mortar fire. But even these kind of things had happened in the past, so initially we didn't think it was serious. But sometime late on the afternoon it all started, I started to smell something bad. So I began, frantically, to call the Russians. They wouldn't respond. I called the secretary-general of NATO. I called [European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy] Javier Solana. I called several other European presidents, like [Lithuanian President] Valdas Adamkus. I said we are coming under an extensive barrage, and nothing like this has ever happened before. Something is wrong here.

Then we contacted the local Russian peacekeepers in Ossetia. The head of the local peacekeepers and Ambassador Yuri Popov [Russian co-chair of the Joint Control Commission for Georgian-Ossetian Conflict Resolution]. Both said they no longer had control over the Ossetian separatists. They told us that the [separatists] are out of their minds. That they don't pick up their phones and can't be reached. But the whole point is that this whole thing started immediately after [Ossetian separatist leader Eduard] Kokoity came back from Moscow. We asked the Russians, "What's going on?" I believe that there are different factions in Russia fighting each other. One faction has become nasty, and the other doesn't know what they are up to.

From our point of view, it all sounded very confused. The acting Russian foreign minister said that the separatists opened fire first and promised us that they were trying to calm the situation down. We told the Russians that we would declare a unilateral ceasefire, and maybe they could do something about this. I went on TV and announced a unilateral ceasefire.

My minister of defense called to say that he had two soldiers killed, and the ministry of interior had some men wounded. All this time we were still holding off from responding to any of these provocations. Then we started to get reports that Russian tanks, Russian APCs [armored personnel carriers], were coming through the tunnel [linking South Ossetia to Russia on Aug. 8].

Finally we said, "OK, the only way to stop this convoy was to open artillery fire." We did not have enough military on the ground to start a ground assault. So we did fire at that convoy, and we fired at Tskhinvali [which South Ossetian separatists recognize as their capital]. But before that, and every international observer saw that, there were several hours of barrage, to which we didn't respond. And in the meantime, we were trying to get international involvement.

Was this planned by the Russians?
When I called the secretary-general of NATO [Jaap de Hoop Scheffer], I said, "Look, this is happening. Conditions are nasty." I said the Russians are being helpful. They are trying to stop the separatists. And you know what he told me? He said, "I don't think so. I think this is a Russian game."

[A NATO spokesperson said Tuesday that de Hoop Scheffer would not comment on a private conversation with Saakashvili.]

He was right and I was wrong. Because as soon as the whole thing erupted, the Russians responded immediately. Tanks began moving. They started to make statements. Moscow claimed that [Russian] peacekeepers were killed. Well, remember that there were 500 local people serving as peacekeepers. I believe that every separatist who got killed or wounded would get a paper saying that they were Russian peacekeepers. Everybody [in Ossetia] is a Russian citizen. Everybody was eligible to be a Russian peacekeeper. So then Russia started to say, "Our peacekeepers are under attack and we are there to protect our peacekeepers." I always said this would be the scenario for the start of hostilities with Russia, except that all the time we were expecting it in Abkhazia. In fact, we thought that South Ossetia had calmed down because the Russians were too much focused on Abkhazia. But Russian troops were massed in North Ossetia, which is not near Abkhazia.

One senior U.S. diplomat, who is a good friend of mine, had lunch with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov, and he said to Lavrov that he was planning to go to Georgia in September. And Lavrov replied, "Too late, there will be a war before then." Then we had information from friendly country intelligence, from Central and Eastern European countries, that something was coming. Brilliant timing. The Olympic Games. All the decision makers are on holidays. And everybody was telling us, if you survive until late fall, then the Russians will calm down.

What did President Bush tell you?
Bush told me he was in contact with [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev. And that he's trying to calm [the Russians] down. He expressed his full support for us. Basically, that's it. He understands that this is not so much about Georgia, but that this is in a sense aggression against Americans.

He said that?
We had a kind of understanding.

Do you feel you will have support from him?
We have mobilized a lot of support in Western Europe. I had a long conversation with [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel. The Germans are in close touch with the Russians.

Are you anticipating further attacks?
Yesterday [Sunday] night, strategic bombers bombed specifically civilian installations, some of them close to pipelines. And the [separatists] in Abkhazia warned U.N. [observers] to move away from the upper Kodori gorge.

Could you explain what has been happening on the ground?
There was massive bombardment of civilian parts of [the Central Georgian town of] Gori. There has been bombardment of Poti port. Their planes went to the port of Batumi, and I immediately ordered to switch off the lights in Batumi, and they missed and hit the sea. And they went to the pipelines. They dropped bombs in places near pipelines in eastern Georgia. They bombed several railway stations that have no military significance whatsoever. And they bombed military bases. Three Russian pilots have been captured alive. One of them was burned and taken to the hospital in Tbilisi. And two more we found dead. The other five pilots of planes [we shot down] ejected into territory controlled by Russia.

Why attack Gori?
Because it's between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi. Actually, I myself witnessed how a Russian plane came very low over a marketplace in Gori and specifically targeted this market. They want to sow panic around the whole area.

What will happen next?
I think they want the whole of Georgia. They have clearly said through different diplomats at different levels that they want the annihilation of Georgia.

Is it your sense that most European leaders view this as a completely Russian-orchestrated event?
Oh yes, clearly. Chancellor Merkel told me yesterday that the Russians bear full responsibility for what is going on.

Full responsibility?
Well, do not quote me quoting here. They certainly bear responsibility. Nobody has ever blamed this on us. Anybody who has knowledge--the Americans, for instance, who have been monitoring this all the time, said that it was clearly started by South Ossetia. We responded to a land invasion of our territory.

You suggest that the aggression is not against Georgia but against NATO?
That's what Putin clearly told me in February. That in response to Kosovo's independence and NATO expansion, he would have to take measures. And Putin said that I shouldn't worry, it's not against us, it's against them, but the measures could be taken against us. Something like that.

What obligations does NATO or the United States have in assisting you now?
I think they have primarily moral obligation, and they have obligation to speak with a united voice to stop Russian aggression. Primarily, first of all, to have a united voice. It's not about calling both sides to exercise restraint. You know, our people are dying. And the last thing we want is to continue this game. To get from Tskhinvali to Tbilisi is just one and a half hours for a tank.

And do you believe the Russians will move beyond the so-called border of the separatist regions?
Absolutely. Because there is no border in the first place. Because they also came into Abkhazia for no reason. Because they bombed communications that have nothing to do with this particular situation. And they've always been after us here. They couldn't care less about South Ossetia. President Putin told me the first time I met him he had never heard about South Ossetia.

Why now?
Because Russia believes that America is weak. Because they see that Europe is frightened of them. Because they think that they are awash with oil money.

If it comes to an all-out fight, what's your assessment of your ability to resist?
We have 50,000 reservists, and they all have weapons, and there is plenty of ammunition. And we are calling back our Army brigade from Iraq. It all depends on many circumstances. This is war, you can never predict it. We still have the smallest army in the region. But we always believed in a small but professional army. The fact that we can shoot down planes speaks for itself. We shot down 10 Su-27s--this is more warplanes than the Russians lost in the whole Chechen war.

What does this mean for your hopes of joining NATO?
This is not about Georgia's aspirations to join NATO. It's about the survival of Georgia.

Are you really expecting a full invasion of Georgia proper?
This is an invasion of Georgia. Yes, I believe that Russia's private purpose is to take over Georgia. They need Georgia. They need control of energy routes from Central Asia and the Caspian. They need seaports. They need our transportation infrastructure. And primarily, they want to get rid of us. They want to make regime change. And they want to get rid of any democratic movement in this part of their neighborhood. That's it, period.

Any chance for a negotiated settlement?
We are looking to Europe and the U.S. Russia has broken every possible rule of behavior. But Russia depends heavily on Europe in many respects. And on the United States. Russia is behaving like a rogue state. It is not mainstream behavior for anybody.