Was Putin in charge during Georgia war? Medvedev begs to differ.

On fourth anniversary of the Georgia war, Russia's President Putin said he was in close contact with then-President Medvedev. He also created a stir by saying Russia had a 'war plan' before the conflict.

Yekaterina Shtukina/Government Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visits a military base in Tskhinvali in Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia on Wednesday, Aug. 8. Medvedev defended his handling of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, which erupted when he served as Russian president.

In separate comments dedicated to the fourth anniversary of the 2008 Georgia war, Russia's President Vladimir Putin has possibly generated more than one nasty controversy, which the Kremlin leader can ill afford.

One remark by Mr. Putin, which has the Georgian Foreign Ministry in full cry, was his unexpected insistence that Russia "had a plan" for war with Georgia even before Georgian forces struck the capital of breakaway South Ossetia on Aug. 8, 2008, triggering the conflict.

Another, which has set Russia's political commentariat astir, is Putin's claim Wednesday that he telephoned then-President Dmitry Medvedev twice in the early hours of the war to discuss what to do. That statement seems remarkable, since Mr. Medvedev has repeatedly insisted that he did not talk with Putin until the next day, when all the key decisions had already been made. Russian experts say this clash of reminiscences is not trivial, and might bespeak a deep rift in the Putin-Medvedev "tandem" that has ruled Russia for almost five years.

"This is a very strange moment," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "It's not really in Putin's best interests to quarrel with Medvedev over what happened. But it seems to be more important to him just now to show that it was he who won the war, who restored Russia's military glory, than it is to maintain the facade of unity with Medvedev."

The whole controversy was triggered by a 47-minute documentary film that features several retired Russian generals accusing Medvedev of "indecision" and "dithering" at the outset of the war, until he received "a kick in the pants" from Putin. The film, entitled "A Lost Day," has only been seen on the Internet, and Putin denies even having seen it.

In the film, General Yury Baluyevsky – who was fired by Medvedev as military chief of staff two months before the war – claimed that Medvedev and his advisers were "afraid to give the command" to intervene against Georgia's offensive in South Ossetia until Putin convinced them to move.

Despite Georgian claims that Russia started the war, the chronological record clearly shows that Georgian forces assaulted Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, during the night of Aug. 7, and the Russian 58th Army poured into the embattled region about 20 hours later.

 But the dispute over who made the key decisions on the Russian side may now herald a fresh power struggle at the summit of Kremlin power.

Speaking to journalists during a Moscow visit of Armenia's president on Wednesday, Putin was explicit both about not having seen the controversial documentary, and also that he had definitely called Medvedev at the beginning of the Georgian attack.

"As far as telephone calls are concerned, yes, I called Dmitry Medvedev twice, on August 7 and August 8 [2008], as well as the defense minister, and we talked about the problem," Putin said.

But on Thursday, Medvedev responded that Putin's memory must be faulty. "I will once again repeat what happened. During the evening from August 7 to 8, when the aggression broke out, I spoke only with the defense minister and staff from the Foreign Ministry," the state news agency RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying.

"This odd interplay between Putin and Medvedev is the talk of the day," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. "They are the tandem, and if Putin is immune from criticism, Medvedev should be, too. That's how it was until recently...

"But now this film has come out, which openly accuses Medvedev of cowardice, and Putin appears to be backing up its version of events. Even if it hasn't been shown on TV yet, it's really quite new. It give us grounds to suspect that something's wrong inside the tandem, that Medvedev's days might be numbered," Mr. Strokan says.

Mr. Petrov argues that Putin may not be trying to tear down Medvedev, but rather to bolster his own flagging image.  "Putin managed to win the election and become president, but that does not seem to have enhanced his public legitimacy," he says. "He seems strongly focused on ways to build up his own image, and is appealing almost exclusively to his conservative base. It's like he no longer considers himself the president of all Russians, but only of those who voted for him. One example is the trial of the punk rockers of Pussy Riot, which looks almost exclusively aimed at pleasing nationalists, traditionalists and conservatives," Mr. Petrov says.

"But now we have another example. Though Medvedev was president at the time, Putin wants his base to believe that it was he who saved the day when Georgia attacked, that Medvedev wasn't the one making the decisions. It bolster's Putin's image at Medvedev's expense, and makes the tandem look shaky, but Putin apparently doesn't care about any of that," he adds.

 Putin's other surprising revelation – again made in response to a question about the documentary film Putin claims not to have seen – has Georgian officials calling on Russia to admit it had planned to make war against Georgia, which had applied to join NATO, all along.

In the film, Gen. Baluyevsky declares: "From my point of view, the commander-in-chief should have given one command: 'Act in accordance with the plan.' This primary order was the most important thing, but it was issued with huge delay."

At his press conference with the Armenian president Wednesday, Putin was asked if Russia really had an "action plan" in place for dealing with Georgia.

"There was a plan in place, and I think it is no secret that Russia’s forces acted in accordance with it," Putin responded. "The general staff drew up this plan somewhere in late 2006 or early 2007. I approved it. Furthermore, this plan was used as the basis for training South Ossetian volunteer forces.... There is no secret here. We have already discussed all of this."

Russian commentators argue that this information changes nothing, since military establishments tend to draw up contingency plans for all sorts of possibilities all the time.

But, in a terse statement Thursday, Georgia's Foreign Ministry said world public opinion ought to revisit the events of August 2008 and recognize Russia's culpability in fomenting the conflict.

"This admission contradicts Russia's earlier assertions that its 2008 military attack was in response to a surprise attack from Georgia and that its invasion was meant to prevent a genocide and protect Russian citizens," the statement said. "It also underscores the premeditated nature of the invasion and highlights Moscow's utter disregard for international law."

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