Dec 2, 2010

WikiLeaks cables claim Russia armed Georgian separatists

Guardian: Russia provided Grad missiles and other arms to separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and carried out a wave of "covert actions" to undermine Georgia in the runup to the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, US diplomatic cables say.

Russia provided Grad missiles and other arms to separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and carried out a wave of "covert actions" to undermine Georgia in the runup to the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, US diplomatic cables say.

The Kremlin's hostile measures against Georgia included missile attacks, murder plots and "a host of smaller-scale actions", the leaked cables said. Russian secret services also ran a disinformation campaign against Georgia's pro-American, pro-Nato president, Mikheil Saakashvili, claiming he suffered from "paranoid dysfunction".

"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," the US ambassador in Tbilisi, John Tefft, wrote on 20 August 2007 in a classified cable.

One Kremlin aim was to remove Saakashvili, Tefft wrote. But the "variety and extent of the active measures suggests the deeper goal is turning Georgia from its Euroatlantic orientation back into the Russian fold", he said. Its aim was also to "provoke the Georgian leadership into a rash reaction that separates Georgia further from the west".

In the cable Tefft reviewed a long list of suspected Russian actions aimed at destabilising Georgia. These included a missile attack in Kodori – an area of Abkhazia then controlled by Georgia – the blowing up of a Georgian police car, and a suspected plot to kill an opposition figure.

Tefft said there was incontrovertible evidence that Moscow was giving "direct, if at times thinly veiled, support" to Georgia's two separatist regions against the wishes of the Georgian government. This support was also military: "The South Ossetians have reportedly received arms and equipment from Russia, including Grad missiles, on various occasions, including during recent tensions."

The ambassador's leaked cables are likely to reopen the acrimonious and still inconclusive debate over who was to blame for starting the 2008 war. Russia insists Saakashvili triggered the conflict by sending tanks in to recapture South Ossetia, prompting Russia to launch its own counteroperation to protect the lives of Russian citizens.

Saakashvili, however, insists he was forced to act after intolerable Russian provocation. He has blamed Moscow for deliberately frustrating his attempts to reach a deal with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has said the Russians financed, armed, guided and nurtured the two separatist movements.

The cables broadly support Saakashvili's view. In his dispatches to Washington the ambassador reported that Russia's FSB spy agency directly controlled South Ossetia, with Russian FSB agents sitting in the government of rebel president Eduard Kokoity. "In South Ossetia, many de facto cabinet ministers and advisers to Kokoity are Russian officials – in most cases believed to be FSB," Tefft wrote, noting that the FSB agents were rotated in and out of Russia.

Russia even paid the salaries of police and other civil servants in South Ossetia – and increased their wages to stop them from defecting to a Georgian-backed rival administration. It also handed out Russian passports to 95% per cent of the enclave's residents, Tefft said, – creating instant citizens whom Russia would "defend" the following year.

Tefft acknowledged that Abkhazia's de facto government had a "somewhat greater degree of independence from Moscow" than its South Ossetian counterpart. But he said it was evident the Russians still had "great leverage" over Abkhazia's Soviet-mentality president, Sergei Bagapsh, who frequently travelled to Moscow for consultations.

When Bagapsh fell ill in April 2007, he was flown to Moscow for emergency treatment on an FSB plane, Tefft said, citing information from the Georgians. Tefft went on: "Several sources have also told us that a senior FSB officer actually lives in a separate residence on Bagapsh's presidential compound."The cables make clear that in the months leading up to the war the Bush administration urged Saakashvili to shrug off Russia's goading and act with restraint. In a meeting in Paris on 13 June 2007, William Burns, then the US ambassador to Moscow, advised Saakashvili to "avoid antagonising them [the Russians]".

Burns expressed sympathy with the predicament of Saakashvili, who told the Americans he believed Putin was "personally committed to removing Abkhazia from Georgia" – a prophecy that turned out to be correct. He said Russia couldn't be trusted, and called for a Nato membership action plan for Georgia as a "'deterrent' against Russian adventurism".

The cables also chronicle Russia's anger and growing frustration with Georgia. In November 2006 Russia's deputy foreign minister, Grigoriy Karasin, complained to Matt Bryza, the US deputy assistant secretary of state, after Tbilisi arrested four Russian officers on espionage charges. "Our patience is at an end," Karasin said.

According to a cable written by Burns, Bryza said the US had warned Saakashvili not to engage in any military action. "He (Byrza) has been clear with Saakashvili: if Georgia uses force or stumbles into a conflict, Saakashvili will find himself alone, blamed by the international community for recklessness." When the war began most western governments, including the UK, blamed the Kremlin – seeing Russia's military operation not as a peacekeeping mission but an old-style invasion. To the chagrin of Washington, Moscow swiftly recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent, arguing that the Americans had done the same thing with Kosovo.

The cables reveal that Russia's actions prompted much diplomatic soul-searching. On 28 August 2008 – soon after the French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, brokered an EU peace deal – the Foreign Office's defence and intelligence officials pondered the war's implications. Mariot Leslie – now the UK's ambassador to Nato – dubbed it a "strategic tectonic shift in international relations", the US embassy in London recorded.

Asked whether Russia's decision to go into Georgia was part of an overall change of strategy, Leslie replied with exquisite equivocation. She said she was "still assessing if it was a strategic decision or a tactical decision with strategic consequences".