The US intelligence community has concluded that a Russian military intelligence officer, based in Abkhazia, commissioned the bomb blast outside the US embassy in Tbilisi and other bomb explosions during 2010 in Georgia. The Obama administration has accepted this conclusion, and attempted to discuss the embassy bombing incident at high diplomatic levels with Moscow. The administration kept the Russian-ordered blast at its embassy under tight wraps of secrecy until now, so as to protect its Russia “reset” policy across the bilateral agenda, which looks increasingly like a reset-at-all-costs.
It was not until The Washington Times’ Eli Lake broke the story in a three-part investigative report (July 22, 27, 29) that Obama administration officials publicly acknowledged the September 22, 2010 bomb incident at its Tbilisi embassy. The officials, however, spoke anonymously and in the wider context of addressing multiple challenges to the Russia-reset policy.
On July 28, the US National Intelligence Council (analytical arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) provided the Intelligence Committees of both chambers of Congress with a second analysis, following up to the December 2010 analysis of the September 2010 incident. Both analyses drew on a variety of inputs, including those from Georgian counterintelligence. The basic conclusion is that Russian GRU’s Major Yevgeny Borisov, stationed on a military base in Abkhazia, coordinated the planting of about a dozen low-yield bombs in Georgia during 2010, including that outside the US embassy (another bomb outside the embassy was detected and defused).
Borisov operated from Abkhazia through a few agents recruited inside Georgia, at least one of whom is in pre-trial detention since December in Tbilisi. Several of the bombs, including those at the US embassy, were made to look innocuous by using candy-box packaging.
A blunder helped to confirm Borisov’s already suspected role. On his behalf, his deputy telephoned the European Union’s Monitoring Mission (EUMM, in Georgia’s interior, with a hotline to the Russian military), offering to help with the casualties of a bomb explosion that had supposedly occurred on the railway bridge near Poti, Georgia’s Black Sea commercial port. However, the field agent had falsely reported to Borisov by mobile telephone minutes earlier that the bomb had exploded. In fact, Georgian counterintelligence was tracking that agent and defused the bomb.
The Georgians intercepted at least two telephone calls from field agents inside Georgia to Borisov’s office, immediately following explosions. Georgian authorities put six suspects on trial in December 2010. Borisov and his deputy, GRU officer Mukhran Tskhadaia, were sentenced in absentia to long prison terms. The investigation established that Borisov’s office supplied the explosive material (Hexogen, known as Cyclonit or RDX in the West) and paid those agents.
Following the US intelligence community’s December 2010 analysis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised this issue with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, in February and July 2011, on the sidelines of signing the START agreement and a child adoption agreement, respectively. The US administration failed to inform the public about the incident at its Tbilisi embassy. It disclosed Clinton’s approach to Lavrov only after the story had surfaced in Washington. When this occurred, the Russian side has not denied the incident. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and State Secretary, Grigory Karasin, told Russian media: “We have conducted a professional investigation. Considering the sensitivity of the matter, both the American and the Georgian sides have been informed of the results” (Interfax, July 28). This sounds as a semi-admission of Russian responsibility for the incident.
Obama administration officials, speaking to the press without nominal attribution, downplay the incident in two ways. First, there is no full inter-agency consensus about a direct responsibility of the GRU at the high levels of that organization. Perhaps Borisov was operating as a rogue agent, these officials speculate aloud. Second, the incident at the US embassy in Tbilisi has more to do with Russia-Georgia than with Russia-US relations; and “it pokes the Georgians in the eye, not the US” (EurasiaNet, The Cable, The New York Times, Washington Times, July 27, 28, 29).
The first argument recalls the hesitant responses to Russian military moves during the 1990s in the “frozen conflicts.” At that time, US officials tended to ascribe such moves to “rogue” or “free-lancing” Russian generals in the field, so as to exonerate Moscow and protect the White House’s efforts to build special relations with the Kremlin leader. That thesis lacked credibility even during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, let alone Vladimir Putin’s. The second argument, implying that the blast at the US embassy in Tbilisi is mainly a Russia-Georgia matter, rather than Russia-US matter, is a thesis that rewards Moscow’s attempts to separate the United States and Georgia from each other. Moscow is regularly testing Washington’s capacity to stand up for US allies. Such tests can take overt and brutal forms, or (as in this case) a carefully calibrated form in Moscow’s practice.