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Page last updated at 00:50 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 01:50 UK

Feeling vindicated in Moscow

A Russian flag flies at half-mast in Moscow in mourning for the dead of South Ossetia on 13 August
Russia was observing a national day of mourning for the victims of the conflict

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Moscow

In an almost deserted Georgian restaurant in the capital, a Russian radio news bulletin plays quietly in the background. The headline is the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, accusing Russia of aggression.

The restaurant itself is almost empty, though it is not clear whether that is because it is midweek or if Russians are unofficially boycotting all things Georgian. It is already impossible to get Georgian wine or mineral water here. Both were banned by Moscow two years ago on a flimsy pretext.

The only other customers in the restaurant are three Russians in their early 20s, enjoying a leisurely coffee and smoking cigarettes in a break from work. One of the young men tells me he believes his country was right to intervene in South Ossetia.

"I personally blame only the Georgian President, [Mikhail] Saakashvili, in this situation. We get nothing but blame, problems and false accusations from him and his government. Somehow other countries do not listen to what Russia has to say - Russia is misunderstood by the West, but they'll see it our way at some stage."

Down the road, near the golden domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a dour statue of Friedrich Engels looms pensively over a city square where Muscovites sit peacefully in the sunshine, reading novels or chatting on their mobile phones during their lunch-break.

Engels' communist ideals have been long since abandoned here - creating a much more prosperous new Russia, all too keen to re-assert itself economically and politically. It is an immeasurably more self-confident and assertive place than the Moscow I left behind five years ago, when President Vladimir Putin was in his early years in power.

He may no longer be president, but most Muscovites are happy to feel that, as Russian prime minister, he remains the power behind the throne, guiding its decisions and its government in the current crisis.

Alexander, a student, tells me: "I think that Russia is right. First of all, we did not start this war. The world respects America because it's strong. We should be strong, too, if we want to gain respect. That's why I think my government is right."

In his mid-50s, another man, also called Alexander, smiles as I ask what he makes of the West's reaction to events in Georgia.

"The Europeans blame Russia," he says. "That's not fair, because it's Russia who has had to deal with this crisis. I think people in the West should know the truth, not simply trust the US."

A better life

Yet others, like Galia, a 24-year-old waitress who moved to Moscow from the Urals to find work, are not so sure about who is in the right over South Ossetia, though she still approves of the Russian leadership and the prosperity it has brought to her and many others.

Russians in a Moscow church light candles for those killed in South Ossetia on 13 August
Russians have been praying for the victims of the fighting in South Ossetia

"With Georgia, you hear about it on the news every day, but I am not really sure about what is happening there. It's a subject for politicians," she shrugs.

"But of course we love Putin. And he is still there. With President [Dmitry] Medvedev, we are not so sure what he is like yet. He seems nice. And life now is so much better for us these days. You can come to Moscow and the salaries are good and it is easy to find a job."

I ask her if she feels any animosity towards Georgians, or indeed towards America. No, she says with a firm shake of the head.

"I can't speak for everyone, but I think the fighting in Georgia is sad," she adds.

"As for young people, I believe we and the Americans are pretty similar. We want many of the same things, though perhaps our politicians see things differently."

For Muscovites sitting outdoors in the busy cafes of the carefully restored old Arbat street in the city centre, the fighting in Georgia feels very distant indeed, even if it does dominate the newspapers some are reading over lunch. The headlines are full of bellicose rhetoric, resonant with overtones of the Cold War.

American presidential candidate John McCain's claim that "we are all Georgians now", and President George W Bush's comments on Wednesday again accusing Russia of aggression receive a dusty response here.

Most Russians argue that the US was wrong to encourage Georgia by helping build up its military, and pushing for Nato membership - giving the impression to Tbilisi that Washington would offer more concrete backing than it has, allowing Georgian President Saakashvili to over-reach himself in sending troops into South Ossetia last week.

Many here also ask: if the US and its allies felt free to intervene in Kosovo, and later Iraq, why should Russia not do the same in its own back yard, to help its own citizens in South Ossetia?

US 'to blame'

Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, firmly believes that Washington must shoulder much of the blame for the current crisis in Georgia.

Russians in Moscow gather donations for relief work in South Ossetia on 13 August
Muscovites have been donating to relief work for South Ossetia

"Russia did not plan this action - it was taken by surprise and had no option but to intervene in South Ossetia," he says.

"America's behaviour in Georgia over the past years and especially the past month is seen in Moscow as very provocative. The US encouraged Georgia to act, maybe not directly, but that was how Mr Saakashvili interpreted it. And Washington has now supported the Georgian leadership on all points."

So Georgia has become a proxy war between Moscow and Washington, allowing Russia to express its long-simmering anger over the US wish to bring Georgia into Nato, and expand Nato right up to Russia's own borders.

Mr Lukyanov believes that the Bush administration has made many miscalculations in its foreign policy in recent years, thanks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the world, and also of Russia itself. Far from being over, he insists, the era of realpolitik is back:

"Now we see both sides, Russia and America, trying to demonstrate that they are tough. We are at the stage of psychological warfare between Washington and Moscow, though hopefully it won't escalate beyond words."

What makes Russia so certain of that?

"I can't believe the US would want to get involved in a military stand-off with Russia, with US forces already over-stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan," is the instant response.

Mr Lukyanov adds another Russian calculation into the mix: "The Bush administration is outgoing - and after the US election, we will have the opportunity to start afresh. Little will be achieved until then in discussions with America."

On the streets of Moscow, it is hard to escape the constant drilling and hammering of construction work. Gleaming new skyscrapers pierce the Moscow skyline - proud evidence of Russia's vast profits from oil and gas.

Those pipelines are Russia's new source of power on the world stage, with Moscow using the West's reliance on it for energy to help rebuild the influence it lost during the collapse of communism.

After the humiliation of the Yeltsin years, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the Kremlin is confidently asserting itself, in the knowledge that the West needs Russia rather more than it likes to admit, and will tread warily.

And Moscow calculates, perhaps correctly, that with its forces and energies tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has little else to offer Georgia but words of support, and will ultimately shy away from any confrontation with Russia beyond the current war of words.


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