Vladimir Putin ‘wanted to hang Georgian President Saakashvili by the balls’

The Times of London
Charles Bremner in Paris
November 13, 2008

Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, planned to topple the President of Georgia and “hang him by the balls”, according to the chief adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

Mr Putin outlined his aims to Mr Sarkozy when the French leader flew to Moscow on August 12 to broker a ceasefire after the Russian invasion of northern Georgia, Jean-David Levitte told le Nouvel Observateur news magazine. It published the account today.

President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia, who is in Paris, laughed nervously when he heard of Mr Putin’s threat on French radio this morning and said that he was aware of it.

Mr Sarkozy was aware from intelligence reports that the Russian army was aiming to overthrow Mr Saakashvili and install a puppet government. He told Mr Putin that the world would not accept this, according to Mr Levitte, Mr Sarkozy’s foreign policy chief, who was in the Kremlin for the talks.

“I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin replied.

Mr Sarkozy responded: “Hang him?”

“Why not? The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein,” said Mr Putin.

Mr Sarkozy replied, using the familiar “tu”: “Yes but do you want to end up like (President) Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then replied: “Ah, you have scored a point there.”

The exchange was disclosed as Mr Sarkozy was about to meet both Mr Saakashvili in Paris today and then chair a European summit with President Medvedev of Russia in Nice tomorrow.

Mr Sarkozy’s team says that it marked the moment that Mr Sarkozy persuaded Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev to restrain military commanders who were determined to take over all of Georgia.

The hanging threat was read to Mr Saakashvili in a live interview on France Inter radio. “I knew about this scene, but not all the details. It’s funny, all the same,” said the Georgian President.

The French account of the Kremlin scene is part of a campaign by Mr Sarkozy to take credit for persuading the Russians to halt their Georgian invasion and allay charges that he ceded too much in Europe’s name by accepting the annexation of the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Mr Sarkozy, who holds the rotating EU presidency, has cultivated a close relationship with both Mr Putin and President Medvedev and he is seeking to position himself as Russia’s chief advocate in western Europe.

Mr Saakashvili voiced dismay over the French drive to restore EU relations with Moscow and said that Europe’s acceptance of the Russian occupation of Georgia’s provinces was the same as its aquiescence in Nazi Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. “I never imagined a few months ago that I would be saying such things but unfortunately those are the facts.

However, he said that he did not feel that Europe had abandoned Georgia. “It’s not the case yet. If it happens, all my values, all my personal principles, all my promises to my people, will be destroyed,” he said.

In a gesture ahead of tomorrow’s summit, President Medvedev said that Moscow was ready to reverse its decision last week to station missiles in the western enclave of Kaliningrad in response to President Bush’s deployment of anti-missile system in central Europe.

“We are ready to abandon that decision… if the new American administration… decides to abandon its anti-missile system,” he told Le Figaro newspaper.

Russia announced the deployment on the day after the election of Barack Obama in a move that was seen as a warning to the incoming administration. Mr Medvedev took a conciliatory line yesterday, saying: “We hope to build frank and honest relations and resolve with the new administration the problems that we have not managed to resolve with the present one.”

“The new American president enjoys great confidence. He has been elected in a very complicated time and I wish him a lot of luck in his post.”

Moscow is blowing both hot and cold towards Europe today — just as the Kremlin did in the days of the Cold War. While Mr Medvedev was being friendly, Mr Putin threatened to scrap a planned pipeline that would carry Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany. The project has hit opposition from critics who worry that the continent is becoming too reliant on Russian energy.

“Europe must decide whether it needs this pipeline or not,” Mr. Putin told Matti Vanhanen, the Finnish Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen, at a meeting in Moscow. “If you do not, we will build liquefaction plants and send gas to world markets, including to European markets. But it will be simply more expensive for you.”