I ran an office in Tbilisi for 5 years recently. While I do not think Putin is telling the entire truth when he accuses the West of creating this attack in an attempt to influence American elections for John McCain, I suspect Putin is telling a partial truth.
The probability that the attack by Georgia timed with the opening night at the start of the Olympics, and that Russia would pull back at the end of the Olympics is "just an accident" is not credible. The probability that Putin would "just happen" to be sitting near George Bush so that he could watch him during a casual occasion, (one of the only such events in the past 8 years) when the balloon went up, is so low as to defy quantification. Putin took a reading and pressed his advantage. He is getting a triple play out of this. So I am fairly sure that it was Kremlin agents who wound up Saakishvili to attack when he did. But the flatfooted US response strongly suggests to me that this was a surprise, or at least that it was unexpected at this time. It is barely plausible that this was a lone-wolf operation by McCain and Schuenemann, but I doubt it very much.
However, I would not be surprised if an "October surprise" had been planned. This sort of thing would be right up certain people's alley. Political handlers on both sides of the aisle are hardly strangers to such thinking. With their ducks lined up better, I would expect that the Republicans could have done very well out of such an event. Since Georgia is positively crawling with agents and assets of the Kremlin who are quite professional, while Georgian agents and assets are mostly not, it is to be expected that the Kremlin would get wind of of such a planned surprise. If the Kremlin got wind of such a plan, their response to it would be expected to be something like what we have seen. The best way to screw up an attack plan that you cannot stop is to provoke it to happen at a time and place of your own choosing. But, there is a third possibility that I think is the most likely one.
Lobbyists tend to be a lying, faithless lot who make a business out of misleading their clients into believing they are very, very important guys. Just look at the Abramoff scandal and this becomes quite obvious. Not a few lobbyists live to fleece their clients with little care for actual results. My best guess is that Randy Schuenemann laid the butter pretty thick onto Saakishvili, leading the Georgian president to think that the Georgian president was a much more important guy than he was. After all, how big a deal is a lousy $200,000 a year in Washington? I can just imagine the conversation in Randy's office when Saakishvili or one of his flunkies called to demand something.
I also think that Saakishvili, feeling the intense pressure of the mass protest march against his dictatorial ways in January of 2008, was getting frantic. President Saakishvili was imagining his parade of beautiful women falling into his bed like a waterfall slipping away, among other things. The life of a mediocre attorney in America is hardly going to measure up after being a near dictator now, is it? Plus, the huge loss of face of having to return to America as 'the guy who got kicked out of office' must really be unattractive. So Mikheil Saakishvili doubtless felt he had to do something. The guy already has an inflated sense of his own importance and I suspect what is most likely is that whatever Randy said to Saakishvili got interpreted incorrectly, and that more importantly, a few hints plus a lot of worrisome background information got interpreted as the worst case scenario by the Kremlin.
Intelligence work is like that. Partial information is the norm, which is why in most cases it is better to tolerate a few identified spies in one's midst unless nations are actively at war. Doing so will prevent crossed wires and misinterpretations. It can also be used as a backchannel to send messages. As Sonny Barger pointed out in an interview, "The most dangerous man is not an angry man. The most dangerous man is a frightened man." Sonny was a guy who knew his basic politics.
So I suspect that the most likely scenario is that the Kremlin believed, on the basis of the evidence it had, that the Republicans were going to try to throw the election by creating a little war right before the November vote. They knew that Saakishvili was in trouble. They knew that Randy was his pet lobbyist, and probably gave the $200,000 a year payment more credence than it deserved since it would go farther in Russia. Then they saw Randy become McCain's foreign policy adviser. They may have monitored a conversation between McCain and Saakishvili, and they may have heard something like the "We are all Georgians" baloney that McCain said in his public phone call. They would have known that McCain was the guy who tapped Saakishvili to succeed Shevardnadze. That would have been enough to make them think something was going to go down. And so I think that on that basis the Kremlin decided to blow it off at the most convenient time for them.
But most likely, there wasn't such an event planned and it was all a mistake generated by a soft-soaping lobbyist who needed some income, a politician's reflexive banter, and an old relationship between McCain and the tinpot president of a tiny nation, when that president needed some help in order to stay in office. And here we are, with a serious FUBAR in the Caucasus heading for blastoff into orbit around Mars. Moscow has its own good reasons for what it did. And now Washington has plenty of cause for whatever it decides to do. Where are we going to go with this?