MOSCOW -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has told U.S. television network CNN that he suspects unnamed persons in the United States provoked the conflict in Georgia in an attempt to help a candidate in the U.S. presidential election.
Putin said Moscow suspected that U.S. nationals were present in the war zone in Georgia and the Russian military produced a copy of a U.S. passport it said had been retrieved after a bloody clash between Russian troops and Georgian special forces.
"It is not just that the American side could not restrain the Georgian leadership from this criminal act. The American side in effect armed and trained the Georgian army," Putin told CNN in a portion of the interview that was broadcast on Russian state television. "Why...seek a difficult compromise solution in the peacekeeping process? It is easier to arm one of the sides and provoke it into killing another side. And the job is done."
Referring to Russian suspicions that U.S. citizens were actually present on the battlefield on the side of Georgian forces -- accused by Moscow of committing "genocide" during the conflict -- Putin said: "If that is true, if that is confirmed, then that's really bad. It's very dangerous and a mistaken policy.
"It that was the case, then the recent events could have a American domestic political dimension," he said in the interview. "If my suspicions are confirmed, in that case the suspicion arises that somebody in the United States has intentionally created this conflict with the aim of making the situation more tense and creating a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of U.S. president."
"If that was the case, it's nothing less than the use of so-called administrative resources in a domestic political fight, in its worst, bloody dimension."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino responded that Putin's allegations were "patently false," and the U.S. State Department said it was "ludicrous" for the Russians to say they were not responsible for what had happened in Georgia.
In extracts of the interview broadcast on Russian state television, Putin did not say who may have been involved or which of the candidates -- Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain -- was to have been the beneficiary.
The crisis flared earlier this month when Georgia tried to retake by force its separatist province of South Ossetia and Russia launched an overwhelming counterattack.
Russian forces swept the Georgian army out of the rebel region and are still occupying some areas of Georgia proper. On August 26, Moscow announced it was recognizing South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states.
At a news briefing in Moscow, Russia's deputy chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said Moscow's forces had retrieved from a battlefield in Georgia a U.S. national's passport.
Nogovitsyn showed an enlarged, color photocopy of that purported document, which was in the name of a Michael Lee White, born in 1967. The passport, issued in the Texas city of Houston, bore a current visa from Kazakhstan. U.S. citizens do not require a visa for Georgia.
The United States and Europe have demanded that Russia respect a French-brokered cease-fire and withdraw all its troops from Georgia, including a disputed buffer zone imposed by Moscow.