Mikheil Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, told The Independent yesterday that attacks like Monday's suicide bombing at a Moscow airport were "payback" for Russia's policies in the North Caucasus, as he compared the country to a "crocodile ready to swallow you up".
Mr Saakashvili and the Russian leadership have exchanged regular insults since the 2008 war between the countries over the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but his comments are likely to enrage Moscow, coming so soon after the blast at Domodedovo Airport that killed 35 people.
Speaking in the Georgian capital last night, President Saakashvili – whose country's two breakaway regions are recognised by Moscow as independent states – accused Russia of trying to destabilise neighbouring countries by encouraging secessionist movements.
"I discussed this personally with Vladimir Putin a while ago. I said to him that the payback for his country for supporting separatists would be that violence would come back to hit them as well," Mr Saakashvili said. "Putin said, 'No, if anyone tries anything against us, we shall crush them like cockroaches,' while jabbing and twisting his thumb on the table in front him."
He said “I do not know who carried out this bombing but I totally condemn this kind of terrorism. The Georgian people have nothing but sympathy for those who have suffered losses in this attack. We must be very careful and try to stop this type of violence. It is certainly not in our interest for the region to be destabilised and all responsible powers must try to avoid policies which could lead to such things.”
Before his interview with The Independent, the Georgian President made similar comments in a televised question-and-answer session. "Russia has a political mentality which is on the level of a reptile, like a crocodile ready to swallow you up," Mr Saakashvili said. There is a well-documented personal enmity between Mr Saakashvili and Mr Putin. The Georgian President once said that talking to Mr Putin was "like somebody standing with an axe at your head and saying: "Don't worry, everything's OK, close your eyes and relax.'"
Mr Putin, meanwhile, has made fun of the time that BBC cameras caught Mr Saakashvili chewing the end of his tie. He also reportedly told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he wanted to "hang" Mr Saakashvili "by the balls".
Critics of Mr Saakashvili, who came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003 promising democratic reforms, worry that the Georgian President is aiming to become a powerful prime minister when his second presidential term ends in 2013, just as Mr Putin did in 2008.
Yesterday, Mr Putin said preliminary investigations into Monday's blast suggested that the bomber did not come from Chechnya. It was unclear whether he meant he had no links to the North Caucasus, or was from a neighbouring republic such as Dagestan. He also ruled out negotiation with terrorist groups.