Embracing Georgia, U.S. Misread Signs of Rifts, by C. J. Chivers

The New York Times

Throughout the cold war and often in the years since, Western diplomats covering the Kremlin routinely relied on indirect and secondhand or thirdhand sources. Their cables were frequently laden with skepticism, reflecting the authors’ understanding of the limits of their knowledge and suspicion of official Russian statements.

A 2008 batch of American cables from another country once in the cold war’s grip — Georgia — showed a much different sort of access. In Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, American officials had all but constant contact and an open door to President Mikheil Saakashvili and his young and militarily inexperienced advisers, who hoped the United States would help Georgia shake off its Soviet past and stand up to Russia’s regional influence.

The Tbilisi cables, part of more than a quarter-million cables made available to news organizations by WikiLeaks, display some of the perils of a close relationship.

The cables show that for several years, as Georgia entered an escalating contest with the Kremlin for the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway enclaves out of Georgian control that received Russian support, Washington relied heavily on the Saakashvili government’s accounts of its own behavior. In neighboring countries, American diplomats often maintained their professional distance, and privately detailed their misgivings of their host governments. In Georgia, diplomats appeared to set aside skepticism and embrace Georgian versions of important and disputed events.

By 2008, as the region slipped toward war, sources outside the Georgian government were played down or not included in important cables. Official Georgian versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.

The last cables before the eruption of the brief Russian-Georgian war showed an embassy relaying statements that would with time be proved wrong.

“Deputy Minister of Defense Batu Kutelia told Ambassador at mid-day August 7 that Georgian military troops are on higher alert, but will not be deploying,” one cable noted, as Georgian heavy military equipment was en route to the conflict zone.

Mr. Kutelia’s assurance did not stand, even in real time. In one of the few signs of the embassy’s having staff in the field, the cable noted that “embassy observers on the highway” saw about 30 government buses “carrying uniformed men heading north.”

Still the embassy misread the signs, telling Washington that while there were “numerous reports that the Georgians are moving military equipment and forces,” the embassy’s “initial impressions” were that the Georgians “were in a heightened state of alertness to show their resolve.”

In fact, Georgia would launch a heavy artillery-and-rocket attack on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, at 11:35 p.m. on Aug. 7, ending a cease-fire it had declared less than five hours before.

The bombardment plunged Georgia into war, pitting the West against Russia in a standoff over both Russian military actions and the behavior of a small nation that the United States had helped arm and train.

A confidential cable the next morning noted that Georgia’s Foreign Ministry had briefed the diplomatic corps, claiming that “Georgia now controlled most of South Ossetia, including the capital.” The cable further relayed that “Saakashvili has said that Georgia had no intention of getting into this fight, but was provoked by the South Ossetians and had to respond to protect Georgian citizens and territory.”

Rather than emphasize the uncertainties, it added, “All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili’s statement that this fight was not Georgia’s original intention.” Then it continued: “Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages” did the offensive begin.

This exceptionally bold claim would be publicly echoed throughout the Bush administration, which strongly backed Georgia on the world’s stage. To support it, the American Embassy appeared to have no staff members in the field beyond “eyes on the ground at the Ministry of Interior command post” on Aug. 8. The cable did not provide supporting sources outside of the Georgian government. Instead, as justification for the Georgian attack the previous night, a Georgian government source, Temuri Yakobashvili, was cited as telling the American ambassador that “South Ossetians continued to shoot at the Georgian villages despite the announcement of the cease-fire.”

The cable contained no evidence that the Ossetian attacks after the cease-fire had actually occurred and played down the only independent account, which came from military observers in Tskhinvali from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The observers, in the heart of the conflict zone, did not report hearing or seeing any Ossetian artillery attacks in the hours before Georgia bombarded Tskhinvali. Rather, they reported to an American political officer that “the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali began at 2335 on Aug. 7 despite the cease-fire.”

Nonetheless, the American cable, relying on Georgian government sources, offered as “one plausible explanation for all this” that South Ossetia’s leader, Eduard Kokoity, had “decided to roll the dice and stimulate a conflict with the Georgians in hopes of bringing in the Russians and thereby saving himself.”

It was not Mr. Kokoity who would require saving. On Aug. 9, as Russian forces flowed into Georgia, a cable noted that “President Saakashvili told the Ambassador in a late morning phone call that the Russians are out to take over Georgia and install a new regime.”

Still the reliance on one-sided information continued — including Georgian exaggerations of casualties and Mr. Saakashvili’s characterization of Russian military actions.

The Saakashvili government was publicly insisting that its bombardments of Tskhinvali were justified and precise. But an American cable noted that when Russian ordnance landed on the Georgian city of Gori, Mr. Saakashvili took a different view of the meaning of heavy weapons attacks in civilian areas. He called the Russian attacks “pure terror.”

By then the West and Russia were mostly talking past each other, and Georgia’s American-trained military had been humiliated in the field and was fleeing the fight.

A few weeks later, after a more stable cease-fire had been negotiated and at a time when the American economy was sliding into a recession, President George W. Bush announced a $1 billion aid package to help Georgia rebuild.

Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting.

Source: The New York Times




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