The Georgian Interior Ministry is accusing Russian intelligence of being behind an explosion near the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi last September, which Senator Mark Kirk warns “would constitute the most serious crisis in U.S.-Russian relations since the Cold War.” Russia was also tied to a dozen other bomb plots last year. Russia has not given up its goal of destabilizing and dominating the U.S. ally.
Georgia has charged Major Yevgeny Borisov, an officer in the Russian GRU military-intelligence service, of orchestrating at least a dozen bomb plots last year. This includes a September 22 explosion about 100 yards from the U.S. embassy. Senator Mark Kirk sounded persuaded by the evidence, saying “These are extraordinarily specific and detailed allegations by the government of Georgia.”
Georgia found that the bombing suspects would call a GRU operative named Mukhran Tskhadaia in Abkhazia after every detonation, who is the deputy to Borisov. The Russians seized Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008 and maintain a military presence there. The Georgian government also says it discovered that photographers for the Georgian president and foreign minister were found to be GRU spies.
Russia has waged asymmetrical warfare against Georgia for years. In 2007, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia authored a memo accusing Russia of being behind a car bombing in 2004, sabotaging a pipeline, and using a helicopter gunship to attack Georgia in 2007. The covert war heated up before the 2008 war, with Russia sponsoring assassinations, missile attacks, bombing a cop car, and arming proxies in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, including with Grad missiles. Ambassador Tefft described Russia’s support for separatists as “direct, if at times thinly veiled.” The document also revealed that many South Ossetian government officials were Russian agents, and that Russia bankrolled the police and other government employees.
The Russians also set the stage for war by giving passports to the population of South Ossetia. This made them Russian citizens, so that when fighting later broke out, Russia would have a pretext to invade. Less than a month before the August 2008 war began, Russia’s 58th Army, which would later invade Georgia, participated in a huge exercise in the Caucasus. Intercepted telecommunications show that a Russian armored regiment entered South Ossetia almost 24 hours before the Georgian military began its offensive against the capital, which the Russians claim triggered their involvement. Other Wikileaks files support Georgia’s account that the offensive was retaliation for artillery attacks by separatists.
The Russian government then declared that South Ossetia would belong to “one, unified Russian state.” A Russian lieutenant that was part of the invasion said, “It will be Russia.” He then made the telling statement, “And Georgia used to be Russian, too.” Russia then expanded the war into Abkhazia, and announced plans to build bases in the two territories for peacekeeping forces. Russia now recognizes them as independent countries, though very few other countries do.
Russia’s desire to control Georgia did not stop there. In 2009, protesters took to the streets to demand the resignation of Georgian President Saakashvili, and Russia vocally supported them. That April, Russia reportedly violated the ceasefire and moved it forces to within 25 miles of Tbilisi. Russia’s rhetoric reached a fever pitch as Georgia permitted NATO to hold military exercises on its territory. President Medvedev warned, “I want to specifically stress that responsibility for possible negative consequences of these decisions will fully rest on the shoulders of those who made them and carry them out.” Russia’s envoy to NATO likewise said the exercises could “significantly affect the stability of the entire South Caucasus.”
In May, the Georgian government foiled a military coup launched from a base near Tbilisi. Georgia said that the plotters were financed by Russia, and a former Georgian special forces major that was arrested confirmed Russia’s role in the coup. He said that Russia planned to send in 5,000 soldiers to complete the overthrow of the government as the soldiers at the base approached Tbilisi. The quick defeat of the coup apparently stopped Russia from moving ahead.
The Russians continued to try to justify the overthrow of the Georgian government. It reacted to an August 2009 suicide bombing of a police station in Ingushetia by claiming Georgia was training and protecting members of Al-Qaeda so they could attack Russia, specifically oil and gas pipelines. As violence in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia escalated into 2010, Russia always attributed it to Georgian support.
Concern that Russia would invade Georgia heightened after the March 29, 2010 subway bombings in Moscow. Chechen terrorist Doku Umarov claimed responsibility, but the Russians were quick to suggest a link to the Georgian government. Deputy Foreign Minister Patrushev said, “We have had information that individual members of Georgian special forces support contacts with terrorist organizations in the Russian North Caucasus. We must check this also in relation to the acts of terror in Moscow.” He also described President Saakashvili as an “unpredictable” threat who may start a war without warning.
Senator Mark Kirk was right when he said that if Russia is found to be behind a bombing targeting the U.S. embassy, it would “put to lie any ‘reset’ in bilateral relations.” The U.S. should be under no illusion. Russia still seeks to dominate its neighbors, and America’s Georgian allies are at the top of the list.
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