While the Georgian government has accused Russia of trying an attempted coup, the Georgian opposition insists that it was President Mikhail Saakashvili who staged a theatrical show so he could blame Russia and brag before his NATO allies. Russia, meanwhile, is claiming that NATO is just trying to provoke a White House bent on restoring positive relations.
All this has cast a heavy shadow over Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Washington this week, where he is expected to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"I am certain that a pro-war faction has formed within NATO," Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, said by telephone from Brussels when asked about the expulsion of two Russian diplomats this week. "There are people in NATO whose teeth are set on edge by all those peaceful statements by Barack Obama. And they are going to get in the way of normal, improving relations between Russia and NATO. For them, it is important to present Russia as an enemy. This creates a basis for their reactionary plans to develop NATO based on the old, Cold War scenario. This is a provocation, a conspiracy against Obama."
Rogozin said he drew these conclusions from the way the decision to expel the diplomats was revealed. "I was told of this decision only after a session of the Russia-NATO Council had ended, giving me no chance to react. A considerable number of ambassadors from NATO countries called me the other day to express their anger at this decision, they too had not been informed beforehand."
Asked how exactly these hawkish elements hoped to provoke the U.S. administration, he explained: "They are certain that we will react adequately, symmetrically. All those plans that we had agreed on, had shaken hands on, they are all being suspended indefinitely."
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already canceled a NATO meeting scheduled for May 19 as a protest against the NATO exercises, while Rogozin said this was also a response to the diplomatic expulsions.
An EU-brokered meeting between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia that was scheduled for Thursday was cancelled, although officials did not attribute it directly to the diplomatic row. Meanwhile, Russian allies in the CIS, Armenia and Kazakhstan, have pulled out of the joint exercises after President Dmitry Medvedev said it was unwise to hold them so soon after August's military conflict in Georgia over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
NATO has pressed on with the exercises, which started on Wednesday and will run through until June 1.
On Tuesday, the Mukhrovani armored tank battalion near Tbilisi refused orders to take part in the exercises and called for dialogue between the government and the opposition, which has been rallying in the capital for weeks for Saakashvili's resignation. Georgia's Defence Ministry that day claimed it had not only suppressed an armed coup, but also infiltrated a plot to assassinate Saakashvili.
The Georgian opposition claims that the government's exaggerated response was staged by Saakashvili. "There was no mutiny, it was all staged to distract attention away from the real problems and blame it on Russia," said Bidzina Gudjabidze, a member of parliament for the opposition Conservative Party.
His party is campaigning for Saakashvili's resignation, but has strongly condemned Russia's military action in South Ossetia and its recognition of the republic's independence. Moscow-based military analysts said that NATO's insistence on holding the exercises is puzzling, given their relatively low military significance.
"These are General Staff exercises held in headquarters, not on the field," said Ivan Safranchuk, a defence analyst. "The level of these games has declined. NATO is in a delicate situation regarding Saakashvili. On the one hand, they find him a liability. But they keep up the obligations."
Rogozin said that NATO officials had explained the necessity of the exercises to him by saying that the organisation "had to save face."
"We had warned the alliance through diplomatic channels that it is quite possible during the exercises that Saakashvili will stage some sort of provocation against foreign military personnel," he said.
"I don't think the mutiny was entirely a spectacle, there could have been some genuine dissent," says Alexander Tchatchia, a Tbilisi-based political analyst at the Institute for Globalisation Problems. "But I do think the mutiny was deliberately provoked. It plays into the hands of Saakashvili and NATO" because it shows genuine decent and pluralism on the one hand, and the president's ability to peacefully deal with it on the other.
On the Russian side, officials were "deliberately overreacting to underscore our vigilance over Saakashvili," said Safranchuk.