TBILISI, Georgia – Georgian authorities mistook messages from the U.S. administration as encouragement to use force against Georgia's breakaway provinces — an action that triggered war with Russia, a former Georgian diplomat said Wednesday.
Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who was ambassador to Moscow in the months before the August war, said the Georgian government's actions had launched the conflict.
The allegations stirred debate over what or who started the five-day war — a debate Georgia said should be resolved by an international investigation.
The war strained U.S.-Russia relations, and U.S. officials have denied Russian claims that Washington encouraged Georgia to send forces into South Ossetia province.
On Wednesday, the Georgian government said Kitsmarishvili's comments were false.
Georgian leaders have said they launched the Aug. 7 attack after separatists shelled Georgian villages and Russian forces invaded from the north. Russia denies that, saying it sent troops to protect civilians and Russian peacekeepers from the Georgian onslaught.
Kitsmarishvili's comments appeared to support the Russian arguments. But he also accused Moscow of provoking the Georgian action, and said "both parties share the blame."
Georgian President Mikhail "Saakashvili wanted that war, he has been bracing for that during the last four years. And Russia was eager to exploit it, pushing him to that using all means," Kitsmarishvili said, without elaborating.
The former diplomat said Georgian officials had hoped to regain South Ossetia within hours, and did not expect Moscow to intervene.
He said Georgian officials believed the United States backed the idea of sending Georgian troops to reclaim Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been de facto independent and patrolled by Russian peacekeepers since the early 1990s.
Kitsmarishvili said Georgian officials told him President George W. Bush gave his blessing for such a use of force when he met the Georgian president in Washington in March.
"Saakashvili's entourage has tried to form an opinion that the U.S. administration would support the use of force," Kitsmarishvili told a news conference. "In reality, it was not like that."
Georgian officials also perceived a July 9-10 visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as encouragement for the plan, Kitsmarishvili said. He said people in Saakashvili's circle told him that Rice "gave the green light."
Rice has denied that Washington encouraged Georgia to use force on the provinces. The U.S. Embassy reiterated that line on Wednesday.
Kitsmarishvili made similar allegations to a Georgian parliamentary panel Tuesday, angering pro-government lawmakers who accused him of siding with Moscow and called for a criminal investigation against him.
Georgia recalled Kitsmarishvili from the Georgian Embassy for consultations just before the war, and the countries have since severed diplomatic ties.