MOSCOW — Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Thursday he had reason to believe U.S. personnel were in the combat zone during the recent war in Georgia, adding that if confirmed, their presence suggested "someone in the United States" provoked the conflict to help one of the candidates in the American presidential race.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili called the claim "ridiculous," likening it to Putin saying that "extraterrestrials were also there."
In Putin's first extended remarks defending Russia's military intervention in Georgia, which has drawn international condemnation, he blamed the Bush administration for failing to stop Georgian leaders from launching the Aug. 7 attack on the breakaway province of South Ossetia that sparked the war.
Speaking on CNN, Putin argued that the U.S. policy of supplying weapons and training to the Georgian army had emboldened the country to abandon long-standing negotiations over the future of South Ossetia and to try instead to seize the region by force, an assault that resulted in the deaths of Russian soldiers stationed there as peacekeepers.
Putin suggested that U.S. military advisers were working with Georgian forces that clashed with the Russian army, a prospect he described as "very dangerous."
"Even during the Cold War, during the harsh confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, we always avoided direct clashes between our civilians, even more so between our military personnel," he said in the interview. "Ordinary experts, even if they teach military affairs, should not do so in combat zones, but in training areas and training centers."
Putin said he based his assertions on information provided to him by the Russian military, but he offered no evidence and cautioned that his "suspicions" required further confirmation.
Earlier in the day, a senior Russian military official said at a news briefing that Russian troops had recovered a U.S. passport in the rubble of a village near the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, where a Georgian special forces unit had been based during the war.
"What was the purpose of that gentleman being among the special forces, and what is he doing today, I so far cannot answer," said Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the general staff, holding up an enlarged, color photocopy of the passport. He identified its owner as Michael Lee White, a resident of Houston, born in 1967, state-owned Vesti television reported.
Saakashvili, in an interview this morning, dismissed the passport report as "typical tricks." He said U.S. military training provided to Georgia's army in recent years focused on peacekeeping and counterinsurgency warfare.
Fewer than 100 U.S. military advisers were said to have been stationed in Georgia before the war began, and they have kept a low profile since Russian tanks and bombers routed Georgian forces in a five-day campaign that left them in control of about a third of Georgian territory.
Putin did not specify which U.S. presidential candidate he believed the Georgian crisis was intended to help, but the official RIA-Novosti news agency quoted experts as saying it had boosted Sen. John McCain's campaign.