MOSCOW As Russia struggled to rally international support for its military action in Georgia, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, the country's paramount leader, lashed out at the United States on Thursday, contending that the White House may have orchestrated the conflict to benefit one of the candidates in the U.S. presidential election.
Putin's comments in a television interview, his most extensive to date on Russia's decision to send troops into Georgia earlier this month, sought to present the military operation as a response to brazen, Cold War-style provocations by the United States. In tones that seemed alternately angry and mischievous, Putin suggested that the Bush administration may have tried to create a crisis that would influence American voters in the choice of a successor to President Bush.
"The suspicion would arise that someone in the United States created this conflict on purpose to stir up the situation and to create an advantage for one of the candidates in the competitive race for the presidency in the United States," Putin said in an interview with CNN.
He added, "They needed a small victorious war."
Putin did not specify which candidate he had in mind, but there was no doubt that he was referring to Sen. John McCain, the Republican. McCain is loathed in the Kremlin because he has a close relationship with Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and has called for imposing stiff penalties on Russia, including ejecting it from the Group of 8 industrialized nations.
Putin offered scant evidence to support his assertion, and the White House called his comments absurd. But they underscored the depth of the rift between Moscow and Washington over the Georgia crisis, which flared three weeks ago when the Georgian military tried to reclaim a breakaway enclave allied with Russia. They also suggested that the Russian leader was deeply concerned about the possibility that McCain, widely viewed here as having a strong bias against Russia, could become president.
Only last spring, Putin, then Russia's president, held a summit meeting with Bush in which the two expressed personal affection for each other and sought to smooth over tensions in the bilateral relationship.
Russia has been struggling to persuade the outside world to back its action in Georgia. On Thursday, China and four other countries meeting with Russia for the annual summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security alliance, declined to back Russia's military action in a joint communique.
Putin's interview came after his protege, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, had spoken to several foreign news media outlets this week as part of a concerted move by the Kremlin to counter Georgia's public relations offensive in the international media. Medvedev's tone was less harsh, though he also criticized the West.
On Thursday, Putin also said Russian defense officials believed that U.S. citizens had been in the conflict area supporting the Georgian military when it attacked the separatist region of South Ossetia. "Even during the Cold War, during the time of tough confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, we have always avoided direct clashes between our civilians, let alone our service men," Putin said. "We have serious reasons to believe that directly, in the combat zone, citizens of the United States were present."
"If the facts are confirmed," he added, "that United States citizens were present in the combat zone, that means only one thing that they could be there only on the direct instruction of their leadership. And if this is so, then it means that American citizens are in the combat zone, performing their duties, and they can only do that following a direct order from their leader, and not on their own initiative."
In Washington, the White House spokesman, Dana M. Perino, dismissed Putin's remarks. "To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate just sounds not rational," she said. She added, "It also sounds like his defense officials who said they believe this to be true are giving him really bad advice."
A senior Russian defense official, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said at a news conference in Moscow on Thursday that Russian forces had found a U.S. passport in a ruined building near the Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The position, he said, had been occupied by Georgian Interior Ministry forces.
"What was the gentleman's purpose of being among the special forces and what he is doing today, I so far cannot answer," Nogovitsyn said, holding up a color copy of the passport. He said members of the Georgian unit had been killed, and the building destroyed.
When the war broke out, the United States had about 130 military trainers in Georgia preparing Georgian troops for service in Iraq. The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi said these trainers were not involved in the fighting; about 100 remain and are assisting with the delivery of aid to Georgia that is arriving on military planes and ships.
Nogovitsyn said the passport was in the name of Michael Lee White of Texas, but gave no information on whether Russians believed that he was a member of the U.S. military. The U.S. Embassy in Georgia told The Associated Press that it had no information on the matter.
Putin said in the CNN interview that Russia had thought that the United States would prevent Georgia from attacking South Ossetia, but suggested that he now believed that the Bush administration encouraged Saakashvili to send in his military.
"The American side in fact armed and trained the Georgian army," Putin said. "Why hold years of difficult talks and seek complex compromise solutions in interethnic conflicts? It's easier to arm one of the sides and push it into the murder of the other side, and it's over. It seemed like an easy solution. The thing is, it turns out that it's not always so."
The Georgia conflict has become a flashpoint in the U.S. presidential campaign, with McCain assailing what he refers to as "revanchist Russia" and asserting that he was far more qualified to handle such a crisis than the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama.
McCain has long been friendly with Saakashvili, who has said he talks to McCain regularly. McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, has worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Georgian government, and McCain's wife, Cindy, traveled to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, this week on a humanitarian aid mission.
All these ties, combined with McCain's criticism of Russia, have earned him a kind of notoriety in Moscow. When Parliament passed a resolution this week urging that Russia recognize the independence of the two breakaway enclaves, some lawmakers not only praised the courage of the South Ossetians, but also threw a few barbs at McCain.