20 August 2017
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Georgia leader Mikhail Saakashvili: Russia is a menace to peace

The West must confront Russia to prevent another conflict from breaking out in the Caucasus, the President of Georgia has told The Times. He compared Europe’s response to the failures of appeasement in the 1930s...

The West must confront Russia to prevent another conflict from breaking out in the Caucasus, the President of Georgia has told The Times.

Mikhail Saakashvili said that elements in Russia were intent on provoking trouble in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and compared Europe’s response to the failures of appeasement in the 1930s.

Georgia is threatening to shoot down Russian fighter jets after Moscow admitted that four aircraft flew over South Ossetia last week. Separatists control the region but it is recognised internationally as part of Georgia. “The situation is precarious and the things they [Russia] are doing are outrageous. Unfortunately, they are not opposed by the Europeans and other players,” Mr Saakashvili said.

“If you can claim a legitimate right to overfly a neighbouring country with the intent to bomb it just because you have your own concerns, that is killing international law.”

Russia said that its jets deterred a Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, a claim dismissed by Tbilisi. The incident became public during a visit to Georgia by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, when a senior State Department official gave warning of catastrophe if Russia failed to halt pressure on its former Soviet satellite.

Mr Saakashvili spoke at the Levadia Palace in Yalta, Ukraine, where the wartime allies Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt met in 1945 to partition Europe after Germany’s defeat. “I don’t know what is playing out in Russia, but it doesn’t look good. I don’t think they are crazy enough to start a war but seeking trouble seems like an obsession for some people there,” he said.

“The West needs to react to it. For some time I have been hearing that both sides should be exercising restraint. That doesn’t look good to me. It looks like examples from the last century.”

Asked if he believed conflict would break out, Mr Saakashvili replied: “The point is that every day we are waking up with some surprises and when sometimes I think it can’t get any worse, then it does get worse.”

Tensions have soared since April, after Georgia accused the Kremlin of plotting to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which border Russia. The territories broke from Georgia in the early 1990s in wars after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Georgia has recalled its ambassador to Moscow over the crisis, which comes at a time of growing friction between Russia and the West after the G8 summit in Japan. President Medvedev infuriated Britain and the US by appearing to back sanctions against Zimbabwe, only for Russia to veto them at the United Nations.

Relations with London remain poor after the first meeting between Mr Medvedev and Gordon Brown failed to resolve rows over TNK-BP and the murdered Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko.

Georgia regards the crisis as evidence of Moscow’s determination to block its entry into Nato by provoking renewed separatist fighting. The military alliance will consider applications from Georgia and Ukraine in December. Ukraine has expressed concern at attempts to stir up separatism in Crimea. Russia’s Black Sea fleet must leave its Sevastopol base by 2017, but Moscow’s powerful Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, said recently that it had “a lawful right” to reclaim the port.

Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair told a conference of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) at the Levadia Palace that tensions with Russia over Ukraine’s Nato membership had to be resolved. “Russia sees Ukraine’s membership as threatening Russian interests. It is very important that we continue over time to explain that this is not so,” he said.

YES, founded by the billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, lobbies for Ukraine’s entry into the EU by 2020.

Tony Halpin in Yalta, Times Online

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