Putin blames U.S. for Georgia conflict

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">A Russian soldier guards armored vehicles allegedly captured from the Georgian military, in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008. The conflict erupted after Georgia launched a massive barrage Aug. 7 to try to take control of South Ossetia. The Russian army quickly overwhelmed its neighbor&#39;s forces and drove deep into Georgia, raising fears that of a long-term Russian occupation. &#40;AP Photo&#47;Dmitry Lovetsky&#41;</span></div>
August 28, 2008 5:31:55 PM PDT
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the United States on Thursday of pushing Georgia toward war and said he suspects a connection to the U.S. presidential campaign - a contention the White House dismissed as "patently false." In another sign of unraveling Russia-U.S. ties, Putin said that 19 U.S. poultry producers will be barred from exporting their products to Russia.

Putin, the former president and architect of an assertive foreign policy that stoked East-West tension even before Russia's war with the U.S.-allied ex-Soviet republic, suggested in an interview with CNN that there was an American presence amid the combat with a potential domestic U.S. political motive.

"We have serious grounds to think that there were U.S. citizens right in the combat zone," he said the interview broadcast on state-run Russian television. "And if that's so, if that is confirmed, it's very bad. It's very dangerous."

Putin's acid attack on the United States came as Moscow's bid to redraw Georgia's borders hit an obstacle among its Asian allies. France, meanwhile, said the European Union is considering sanctions against Russia for its conduct in the Caucasus.

The Russian leader said the poultry decision was unrelated to the Georgia issue. He said that the unnamed American producers ignored demands that they correct alleged deficiencies after examinations by Russian inspectors last year.

"We try and keep our industry out of politics and into marketing opportunities, but sometimes it's very difficult to separate the two," said Jim Sumner, president of the U.S.A. Poultry & Egg Export Council. He said Russia is a major market for American producers.

Putin said that Russia had hoped the U.S. would to restrain Georgia, which Moscow accuses of starting the war by attacking South Ossetia on Aug. 7. Instead, he suggested the U.S. encouraged the nation's leadership to try to rein in the separatist region by force.

"The American side in fact armed and trained the Georgian army," Putin said. "Why hold years of difficult talks and seek complex compromise solutions in interethnic conflicts? It's easier to arm one side and push it into the murder of the other side, and it's over.

"It seems like an easy solution. In reality it turns out that it's not always so," he said.

The United States has close ties with the Georgian government and has trained Georgian units, including for service in Iraq. But Russian officials have made statements aimed to convey the idea that Americans may have directly supported Georgia's offensive.

At a briefing Tuesday, the deputy chief of Russian military general staff, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, showed off a color copy of what he said was a U.S. passport found in a basement in a village in South Ossetia among items that belonged to Georgian forces.

"We found a passport for Michael Lee White," Nogovitsyn said. "He's a Texan."

The U.S. Embassy in Georgia said it had no information on the matter.

Putin appeared to link claims of an American presence amid the combat with a potential domestic U.S. political motive.

"If my guesses are confirmed, then that raises the suspicion that somebody in the United States purposefully created this conflict with the aim of aggravating the situation and creating an advantage ... for one of the candidates in the battle for the post of U.S. president." Putin did not name a party or candidate.

White House press secretary Dana Perino called Putin's contentions "patently false." She said "it also sounds like his defense officials who said they believe this to be true are giving him really bad advice."

She added: "To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate just sounds not rational."

Perino said Russia is facing the consequences of a diminished global reputation and that "there will be other" consequences as well. She refused to say what they would be and said there is no timetable.

Putin said the imminent ban on imports from 19 poultry producers was "purely economic." He said another 29 producers would receive warnings.

U.S. producers supply nearly 75 percent of the total poultry import quota set by Russia, which stands at 1.2 million tons. Russia represented the largest export market for chicken broilers made by U.S. producers in the first half of this year, said Jim Sumner, president of the U.S.A. Poultry & Egg Export Council.

Sumner said he expected the alleged plant deficiencies to be corrected within weeks or a few months and said the stoppage would not have a major impact on U.S. producers.

In Tajikistan, China and four Central Asian nations joined Russia in criticizing the West. Wary of separatists and restive religious groups at home, however, they stopped short of heeding Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's call to carve out two new nations in a volatile region at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Medvedev had appealed to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - whose members are Russia, China, and four Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - for unanimous support of Moscow's response to Georgia's "aggression."

But none joined Russia in recognizing South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, as independent countries.

"The participants ... underscore the need for respect of the historical and cultural traditions of each country and each people, and for efforts aimed at preserving the unity of the state and its territorial integrity," the declaration said.

The statement offered some praise of Moscow's actions, at least in the context of the peace deal signed five days after the war began. It said members welcome the cease-fire and "support the active role of Russia in promoting peace and cooperation in the given region."

But Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the summit highlighted Russia's isolation, noting that not even U.S. foes Cuba and Venezuela have followed Russia's lead on recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"The Soviet Union was not so alone even in 1968," he said on Ekho Moskvy radio, referring to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed a liberal reform movement in the Warsaw Pact nation.

Western leaders have added condemnation of Russian recognition to their accusations that Moscow used disproportionate force in its Georgia offensive and has fallen far short of its withdrawal commitments under an EU cease-fire deal.

The EU is "trying to draw up a strong text signifying our unwillingness to accept" Russia's stance, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Thursday.

"Sanctions are being considered ... and many other means as well," Kouchner told a news conference. The Foreign Ministry said later that France was not behind a sanctions proposal and that France's role would be to help reach a common EU position.


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