In returning the arrested army officers in a handover facilitated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE), Saakashvili said Georgia was making a peace offering of sorts. 'Enough Is Enough'
From his comments, however, it was clear there was a limit to his goodwill. "The message of Georgia to our great neighbor Russia is, 'Enough is enough,'" the Georgian president said in a joint press conference with OSCE Chairman in Office Karel De Gucht.
"We want to have good relations," Saakashvili continued. "We want to be constructive. We want to have dialogue. But we cannot be treated as a second-rate backyard of some kind of -- in the minds of some politicians -- reemerging empire."
The incident set off what is possibly the worst crisis between the two countries in years. Georgia's return of the accused spies was apparently not enough to mollify Russia, which today announced it was severing all air, sea, and land links between the two countries. Pointed Rhetoric
Russian President Vladimir Putin was biting in his October 1 criticism of Georgia.
"The saber-rattling is extreme. It's actually quite dangerous as well... This is really taking everyone's eye off the problems with Islamic jihadists operating in the area."
"In spite of the fact that Russia is consistently fulfilling all the agreements we have on removing our armed forces from the territory of the republic [of Georgia] -- in spite of all this, as is known, our military officers were snatched and thrown in jail," Putin said, adding pointedly: "This is a sign of the succession of Lavrenti Beria both inside the country and in the international arena."
Putin's reference to Josef Stalin's notorious secret police chief -- who, like Stalin, was from Georgia -- is a good reflection of how low the level of discourse between Russia and Georgia has dipped.
As is Georgia's decision to parade the alleged spies on television -- which, by most people's reckoning, is not the most sensitive form of diplomacy. Poor Ties Get Worse
The angry words and saber-rattling are the latest crisis in a 15-year decline in Russian-Georgian ties.
The Georgian government has accused Russia of backing separatists in its two breakaway regions, the frozen conflicts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
For its part, Russia is angry at Georgia's attempts to leave its orbit and head West.
Georgia's NATO bid received a boost recently when it was offered an "intensified dialogue" with the alliance. It has also been offered an Action Plan as part of the EU's integrationist Neighborhood Policy. Murky Motivations
So plenty of context, but what about cause? Why has this row erupted now?
Paul Beaver, a London-based defense and security analyst, says it's hard to see what Georgia can gain by raising the stakes at this time.
"I'm not sure by having a spy trial it's actually going to help the frozen conflicts or Georgia's membership of NATO or any of the other things that Georgia wants to do," Beaver says.
Some Russia analysts -- and the Russian president himself -- have seen a greater hand at work. This, the analysts say, is not about a local dispute between Russia and Georgia, but a far broader struggle for influence in the region between Russia and the United States.
Putin's reference to Beria -- Josef Stalin's notorious secret police chief -- is a good reflection of how low the level of discourse between Russia and Georgia has dipped.
But Beaver doesn't think the United States would have very much to gain by antagonizing Russia.
"I think America and Russia have more to gain by being together," he says. "And I certainly don't see the United States using Georgia as a pawn. Georgia might like to think that it's a pawn and it's very influential, but quite frankly it is a lower-order, lower-magnitude regional player." Poses And Posturing
So it seems Georgia would have little to gain by raising the stakes in terms of its NATO bid. Nor does it seem this latest spat will have any positive effect in Georgia's bid to solve its frozen conflicts -- an important prerequisite for joining NATO.
Georgian police escorting the four Russians during their handover to the OSCE (InterPressNews)
Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of discourse. A matter of style over substance. More posturing than an attempt to achieve any political goals.
The director of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi, Ghia Nodia, says, for Saakashvili's part, the latest conflict shows the Georgian leader employing his typical diplomatic methods.
"Georgia's president likes to do things in a very public and demonstrative style, and to somehow show to the people, 'This is what I'm doing,'" he says.
And with local elections in Georgia on October 5, Nodia says, that could be a fairly sensible political move.
"I think that Saakashvili got some extra publicity because of that [spy scandal], and of course it did not harm his election chances," he says. "However, all analysts agree that victory in these elections are guaranteed for the ruling party on the assumption that the elections will be completely fair." Dangerous Game?
Whatever the reasons for the latest dispute, what is clear is the paucity of good diplomacy. As analyst Beaver says, if you want to resolve a dispute amicably you don't parade spies on television.
It is, he says, an almost 19th-century way of doing things -- and one that has potentially serious consequences.
"The saber-rattling is extreme," Beaver says. "It's actually quite dangerous as well, because there are so many other issues in Black Sea security and Caucasus security that should be looked at, and this is really taking everyone's eye off the problems with Islamic jihadists operating in the area. It's taking the security services' eye off the main game, which is organized crime, which it must do something about."
With today's handover of the four Russian officers, it seems that diplomacy may have prevailed. But with hawks on both sides spoiling for a fight, that may well be a very temporary state of affairs.