Medvedev Guests Take Tough Message Home

President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday in a meeting with a group of Western political and academic specialists on Russia that last month's military conflict between Russia and Georgia demonstrated the current absence of a just international order.

Slipping on occasion into coarser language more commonly associated with his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Medvedev told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club that the existing system of global security as visualized by the United States could not guarantee that the "next Saakashvili would not go nuts" and use force against another people.

In early August, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili tried to regain control over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia with military force, only to be driven back and followed into Georgia by Russian forces. The conflict has raised strong concerns over the return of a more aggressive stance on Russia's part toward its neighbors.

Medvedev told the group that the major global players should return to the system of the 20th century, when he said countries were able to agree on principles of international justice and collective security.

In Friday's meeting, held in the reception hall of the GUM department store, opposite the Kremlin on Red Square, Medvedev echoed statements Putin made a day earlier during a meeting with the group in Sochi, reassuring them that Moscow was loath to slide back into a pattern of Cold War confrontation. But he also stressed that it saw former Soviet states as within Russia's natural sphere of influence.

On Friday, Medvedev described NATO's promise last April to ultimately extend membership to Georgia as "unjust," "humiliating" and "intolerable" for Moscow.

"NATO would not become stronger that way; global tensions would not be reduced," Medvedev said, referring to the alliance's consideration of membership for both Georgia and Ukraine.

He said a plan for Georgian membership in NATO would not have changed Russia's actions in last month's conflict.

"What if Georgia had a NATO Membership Action Plan? I would not hesitate for a second to making the same decision I made at that time," Medvedev said, adding that the consequences would have been even graver.

Medvedev also hinted at what has been a regular suggestion from the Russian side: that the United States had been behind the Georgian decision to use military force in South Ossetia.

Referring to Saakashvili using a pet dog's name, Medvedev described how the Georgian president had sought a meeting with him in the months preceding the conflict but said that after a visit to Georgia by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in July, it was "as if our boy was switched for someone else" and "began preparing for war."

Many of Medvedev's comments focused on the United States, including likening the meaning of Aug. 8 for Russians, the day Georgia attacked South Ossetia, to the importance Sept. 11 has for Americans following the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Speaking about U.S. moves to install anti-ballistic missile facilities in Central Europe, Medvedev dismissed Washington's assurances that the missile shield was not aimed at Russia but that it is intended to intercept possible future launches from Iran.

"It is directed exactly at us," he said. "No other variant is possible."

Medvedev also said he opposed the use of force against Iran as advocated by some hawks in Washington in order to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Issues addressed by Medvedev during the two-hour meeting covered a number of subjects, ranging from what he has famously labeled Russia's inveterate "legal nihilism" to establishing the ruble as a global reserve currency.

Valdai club members also met in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Ministers Igor Shuvalov and Igor Sechin, deputy head of the Russia's General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn, and an opposition leader, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Kasparov spoke of efforts to unite Russia's opposition, both on the left and the right, into a National Assembly that could act as an alternative parliament.

But the focus for the guests was the meetings with Medvedev and Putin.

The two delivered a basic message that Russia wants to return to business-as-usual relations with the West, said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at Germany's Council on Foreign Relations.

During the meeting, Medvedev called on Western elites to stop viewing Russia as an ideological heir of the Soviet Union and expressed hope that the current escalation of tensions in Russia's relations with the West would be brief.

Not everyone present was convinced that this was the direction developments would take.

Ariel Cohen, of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank, said after the meeting that the lowest point in Russia's relations with the West has yet to come, after which cooperation will begin to develop again, RIA-Novosti reported.

Rahr said it appeared that Medvedev and Putin had coordinated their presentations and that "There was absolutely no feeling of any rivalry between them."

He also said the majority of the guests at the meeting departed convinced that Putin is still "running the show."