TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was “mad” to try to crush rebels in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and he fell into a Russian trap that led to war, a senior French official said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered an outline peace deal on Tuesday and the early hours of Wednesday to end fighting sparked by Saakashvili’s decision to launch a military offensive last week in the pro-Russian region of South Ossetia.
“Saakashvili was mad to go and bomb a town in the middle of the night,” a senior official in Sarkozy’s office told reporters overnight on condition of anonymity.
“He gambled, he lost,” the official, who was involved in negotiations on the peace deal, said, adding: “The Georgians fell into a crude trap. They thought that (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin would not retaliate in the middle of the Olympic Games.”
But Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s reaction was too heavy-handed and they realized that Moscow was increasingly perceived as the aggressor, the official said.
“Putin said he was perfectly aware of this situation,” he added after Sarkozy held lengthy talks with Medvedev and Putin at the Kremlin.
Russia’s troops overran their Georgian adversaries, forcing them out of South Ossetia and helping rebels push out Georgian forces in another breakaway region, Abkhazia, before moving further into Georgian territory.
“Medvedev and Putin had a totally disproportionate response,” the official said, adding that France made no concessions to the Russians to secure the peace deal.
“We gave away nothing at all,” he said.
Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said he met the Russian and Georgian leaders in his EU capacity, and the official said the bloc had an important role to play in this conflict.
“The United States are on the touchline” because of their close ties with Georgia, he said, adding that the United Nations was divided and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was too weak.
Georgia’s pro-Western stance and its stated ambition to join NATO have damaged relations with Russia, which is renowned for jealously protecting its interests in its near abroad — countries in its immediate vicinity.
Sarkozy’s visit also offered some insight into the balance of power between Putin, who was barred constitutionally from seeking a third successive term as president, and Medvedev, whom he anointed as his successor.
“When Putin is there, he talks more than Medvedev, but in front of the press, it’s Medvedev who does the talking,” the senior official said.
Sarkozy met Medvedev on Tuesday and Putin then joined them for a lunch meeting that lasted several hours, far longer than originally scheduled.
“We felt it was a very good sign when we heard that Putin was coming,” he added.
Editing by James Mackenzie and Mary Gabriel