Dec 5, 2010

The Washington Times: Russia waged covert war on Georgia starting in '04

By Eli Lake

Russia waged a covert war against Georgia that included missile attacks, arms shipments to anti-government rebels and car bombings since 2004, a newly disclosed U.S. Embassy cable says.

Among the secret war operations were a 2007 helicopter gunship attack on the headquarters of a pro-government group in the Georgian province of Abkhazia, and the murder of Georgian police officers in the town of Gory. Known inside the Russian security services as "active measures," the tactics employed against Georgia included political disinformation campaigns, industrial sabotage and assassinations.

"The variety and extent of the active measures suggests the deeper goal is turning Georgia from its Euroatlantic orientation back into the Russian fold," said the cable, signed by the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, John Tefft.

The July 20, 2007, cable, labeled "confidential," was written nearly one year before Russian military forces invaded Georgia, and raised questions about President Obama's reset policy with Russia. The White House has limited its opposition to Russia's bullying of former Soviet republics like Georgia to public statements. In the interim, the administration has touted an arms control treaty and Russian cooperation at the United Nations as evidence of better cooperation between the two cold war rivals.

Privately, however, several secret cables made public by the website WikiLeaks reveal that senior U.S. officials hold Russia's government and its policies in low regard.

The cable dealing with the Russian-Georgian conflict sheds particular light on the origins of the 2008 war. At the time, some international observers accused Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of provokingRussia, and sparking the war. Russian troops today remain in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But the cable shows that at least the U.S. ambassador in Tblisi believed Russia was conducting a war of its own against Georgia.

In an interview, Giga Bokeria, Georgia's national security adviser, declined to comment on the cable.

However, he told The Washington Times that Russia's covert war against his country has been under way since Georgia's independence in 1991, and that the campaign intensified in 2004 when the pro-West Mr. Saakashvili became president.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, Yevgeniy Khorishko, declined to discuss the cable. But he said there was no proof that Russia had engaged in any covert actions inside Georgia and that the allegations were false.

The cable begins by describing the May 11, 2007, attack on theprovincial government in exile for the province of Abkhazia. Abkhazia is home to a Russian population that has in the past said it would like to be part of Russia and not Georgia. Many ethnic Georgians were forced to flee Abkhazia in the 2008 war.

"UN investigators have told us privately that they agree with the Georgians that only Russia could have launched the attack, noting that while the final written report does not directly assign blame, 'any reasonable person' would conclude from it that Russia was responsible," the cable said.

At the time, the Russian government officials claimed their radar were not working during the time of the attack and could therefore not provide the United Nations any information.

"It was an attack from helicopters and from the ground on civilian infrastructure," Mr. Bokeria said. "The evidence was overwhelming that these helicopters were Russian."

Mr. Khorishko, however, said, "As I remember the situation in 2007, the Georgian side could never produce evidence that this was a Russian attack, these are pure allegations and speculations."

The cable also describes a car bomb attack in Gory in 2005. The attack prompted Georgia's ministry of internal affairs to arrest in 2006 a ring of spies from Russia's military intelligence known as the GRU.

The cable disclosed the U.S. suspicion that Russian intelligence was behind two simultaneous explosions on the Georgian-Russian pipeline on Jan. 22, 2006. Later in the same day another explosion took out a high voltage line based in Russia that supplied Georgia with electricity.

"There was no response from the Russian government for four days," Mr. Bokeria said. "For one week in 2005 Georgia was left with no gas and electricity from Russia, causing shortages. We believe this was an act of Russian sabotage."

Mr. Khorishko, the Russian embassy spokesman, said allegations that Russia was behind the sabotage are false.

The cable also said Russia has shipped Grad artillery rockets to the provincial government in South Ossetia, which it described as closer to Moscow than the provincial government in Abkhazia.

Mr. Tefft wrote in an introduction to the cable that Russian policy in Georgia is as follows: "The cumulative weight of the evidence of the last few years suggests that the Russians are aggressively playing a high-stakes, covert game, and they consider few if any holds barred."

Mr. Khorishko said, however, that his country had only benign intentions and did not seek to destabilize Georgia.