Interview: Georgia's President Keeps Firing

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Sergo Galuashvili Belousov / NorthFoto / ZUMA

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili

It's midnight, but Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili is just hitting his stride. In an interview in the fortress-like presidential residence on a hill in downtown Tbilisi, dressed in a blue suit and light blue silk tie, he fields questions in French and English, trades text messages with an aide, and holds forth on topics ranging from current and historic confrontations between his country and Moscow, to the number of Russian passports distributed last year in Crimea (177,000). He refers to European foreign ministers by first name, chats about John McCain and his wife, expected shortly on a humanitarian mission, and a recent five-hour meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His tone of voice ranges from hectoring to unfiltered sarcasm.

Saakashvili reveals he is sleeping about four hours a night. A nasty cut on his right hand, suffered when his security detail shoved him to the ground in the town of Gori last week as Russian bombers flew overhead, is just healing over. "We are in a very decisive moment," he says in clipped rapid-fire speech. "We need to stay strong and show the people that we are strong. And we will stay to the end. We will resist [Russia]. We will squeeze them out of this entire territory."

Still, he admits his situation is dire. "It's a tough fight. I don't enjoy being a leader of a country in a time of war." But rather than striking back on the battlefield, he says, the only way to convince Russia to leave is to "hit them where it hurts" in bank accounts in the West. As for the Russian army, he scoffs, "They are not capable of a new Cold War. They are badly dressed, badly equipped, and many of them are drunk. There are just a lot of them."

On Georgia's decision to step up attacks two weeks ago on Ossetian positions in Tskhinvali — a decision that, some observers say, gave the Russians a pretext to invade — he responds: "There was no choice. The choice was either resist or don't resist and watch Russia overrun our country and come all the way to the capital." Russia's ambitions, he explains later, are not restricted to South Ossetia. "They came for all of Georgia," he says. "They saw that we are prospering here and they wanted to put an end to that." And, of course, there was the international dimension. The Russians, he says, "think they are liberating Georgia from our horrible, pro-Western political class." Indeed, their hope was that the Russian invasion would stir Georgians to rise up and depose him, says Saakashvili. "That was their strategic mistake. That's not how you destroy politicians. That'S how you strengthen them."

"What are we supposed to do, just watch? Who would have forgiven us? I know it's impossible to fight this army but we could not just give in. We had no choice." Still, he concedes, "I didn't have good intelligence and neither did my friends." He had been expecting an attack, he says, but two weeks later, and in Abkhazia rather than South Ossetia.

Right now, he says, "Russians are continuing the occupation but in a different shape. They are moving back from Gori but they are advancing in other places. Now it's totally up to the good will of the Russians. Why should they pull back? They are not paying any price for what they are doing." For this he blames an internationally brokered ceasefire agreement which he claims is "ambiguous and very weak." He says he never expected U.S. military intervention, but that he had expected America to "to tell Russia to put on the brakes and stop it."

Nevertheless, he hasn't lost hope. "To roll back aggression takes time. But they should know that it is going to happen." Still, "Georgia on its own can't roll back Russian aggression. The real solution is to make sure that Russia can't get away with this. They are convinced that after a while the rest of the world will just forget what happened here. That can't happen."