TBILISI, Georgia – Despite rising tensions and slashing rhetoric as the first anniversary of the Russian war approaches, top officials in Tbilisi and Moscow downplay the likelihood of renewed fighting — but for deeply different reasons.
The deputy chief of Russia's general staff says Georgia is too weak after the war that devastated its military and caused an estimated $1 billion damage to the struggling country.
Georgia's national security adviser, however, says the danger of new fighting appears low because of "preventive diplomacy" and because Russia knows a new war would undermine its influence among neighbors and rapprochement with the West.
In the two weeks ahead of the Friday anniversary of the start of the war, Georgia and Russia have accused each other of preparing for new hostilities by allegedly launching small attacks in and around South Ossetia, the separatist region that was the war's flashpoint.
The August 2008 conflict erupted after escalating exchanges of fire between Georgia and Moscow-backed South Ossetian forces. The region, recognized by Russia as independent after the war, is now home to thousands of Russian troops and cut off by roadblocks from the rest of Georgia.
Each reported attack was followed by ominous or aggrieved words from both sides, culminating in Russia's Defense Ministry saying it reserved the right to use all available means against Georgian aggression.
However, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn of the Russian general staff gave a milder — if no less contemptuous — assessment on Wednesday, saying "We don't see a capability for any kind of aggression."
The statement was a distinct backing-off from Russia's recent allegations that Georgia is rearming with hostile intent.
Georgia has warned repeatedly that Russia's and South Ossetia's recent claims echo the provocations and heated words that preceded last year's war. But Georgian National Security Council chief Eka Tkeshelashvili contends that Georgia's close contacts with the United States and the European Union are keeping the tensions from boiling over.
Georgia has "the assurance that at this time, unlike last year, preventive diplomacy will work in such a manner that we will not see deterioration of the situation," she said. Russia understands that the political price of any action would be too high, she said.
The preventive diplomacy may have already been called into action. U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke by telephone late Tuesday, according to a Kremlin statement that mentioned only fleetingly that Georgia was a topic of discussion.
Among the political costs of a new war, Tkeshelashvili said, could be the alienation of neighbors, notably oil-rich Azerbaijan, if Russia appears to be trying for tough regional dominance.
"If Georgia falls ... Azerbaijan is fully encircled and then any independent thought of Azerbaijan for its energy supplies is almost a non-existent case," she said. "What we see now is a very good example that (the war) worked contrary to Russian aspirations. We see now that even Belarus, which was clearly under Russian influence, now is seeking alternative ways of development and being closer to Europe."
Belarus deeply angered Moscow by failing to recognize South Ossetia and another separate province, Abkhazia, as independent.
But if the war tarnished Russia's image, it also raised deep concerns in the West about Georgia's reliability as it seeks membership in NATO and the EU. Georgia's intense artillery barrage of the South Ossetian capital in the opening hours of the war unsettled allies with suspicions that President Mikhail Saakashvili is impetuous and willing to spill blood to defend national pride.
Georgia is taking steps to counter that perception as the anniversary looms. On Thursday, the government is to issue an extensive report detailing its contention it had to launch an artillery barrage on Tskhinvali, the provincial capital, because Russian troops had moved into South Ossetia hours earlier and because of attacks on Georgians by South Ossetian forces.
"The Georgian government concluded that it had been left with no choice but to order military action to counter what was rapidly becoming an invasion with aims that went far beyond a dispute over two Georgian territories," says a report summary obtained by The Associated Press.
The report says some 150 Russian military vehicles entered a tunnel that connects South Ossetia and Russia some 20 hours before the Georgian barrage began. It also rejects Russia's contention that Georgia was planning genocide against Ossetians.
Some observers suggest that Western countries' doubts about Georgia after the war reflect their own embarrassment at being unable to put pressure on Russia.
"It's not easy to say 'We just did almost nothing ... we were weak in front of Russia'," said Thornike Gordadze, a Caucasus researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul. "It's kind of proportional, Georgia's bad image, a Western attempt to save their own image."