'Terrible Losses Overnight': Cables Track US Diplomatic Efforts to Avert Russian-Georgian Conflict

By Uwe Klußmann

The leaked embassy cables show how the US, after spending years helping to build up Georgia's military capabilities, made last-ditch diplomatic attempts to avert the August 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia.

War damage in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, in 2008. Zoom
AP

War damage in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, in 2008.

The Americans knew precisely who they were dealing with: Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, said one US embassy cable, was "among the most hawkish on Abkhaz issues" in the Georgian government. That is why Washington's envoy to the Caucasus, Matthew Bryza, spelled things out very clearly when he met with Merabishvili on May 12 in the capital, Tblisi. "Bryza warned Merabishvili that war is a bad option for Georgia," says one US dispatch. A war would "destroy any chance for the country to enter NATO as well as cost it valuable support in Washington and European capitals."

At the time, the situation in the Caucasus was explosive: Georgia laid claim to the regions of Abkhazia und South Ossetia, which had split off from the country in the early 1990s during a war of secession. Russian peacekeeping troops were stationed in both regions and the de facto republics were increasingly leaning towards Russia.

The Georgians were close allies with the US, while the Abkhazians and South Ossetians were supported by Russia. Neither the Russians nor the Americans wanted a major escalation in the regions -- but they weren't averse to fanning tensions. It was a dangerous approach that eventually backfired.

On Feb. 11, 2006, the US embassy in Moscow warned Washington that had come from a Russian deputy foreign minister: Kosovo's bid for independence from Serbia -- a move which was favored by the US -- would "set a precedent."

This was a clear reference to the two breakaway regions in the Caucasus. Over two weeks later, the US embassy in Moscow directly warned of an impending Russian-Georgian war. It send a cable saying it was necessary to exert pressure not only on Moscow, but also on Tbilisi. "We must equally keep Georgia focused on the unacceptability -- as well as the dangers -- of any recourse to force."

Public US Support Emboldened Saakashvili

Nevertheless, US President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, continued to give their unqualified support to Georgia. This political course emboldened Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili; he believed that the US would step in if things got serious. Bolstered by US aid, he was pursuing a massive military build-up. He was also using threats and promises in an attempt to bring to heel the separatist republics. But his efforts had proven fruitless.

This was the situation when US Caucasus envoy Bryza met Interior Minister Merabishvili in May 2008 and offered to broker talks with the Abkhazian government. Bryza had recently dined with the Abkhazian foreign minister on the Black Sea coast. The American believed that he could act as a go-between.

But Merabishvili didn't like the US diplomat's proposals. He said Georgia would permanently lose Abkhazia in the ensuing negotiations. According to the US protocol of the meeting, Merabishvili did not speak of war on this occasion, but the dispatch leaves no doubt that the Georgians were on the verge of launching into a military conflict.

Roughly two months later, just a few days before the outbreak of the war, the State Department received a confidential message from the US embassy in Moscow, which said that the Russians also knew about Saakashvili's leanings toward war. "Russia had intelligence that had indicated Georgia intended to commence a 'meaningful military action.'"

'Remain Calm'

In the days that followed, there were repeated exchanges of gunfire along the border between South Ossetia and central Georgia. These were only skirmishes, though. John Tefft, the US ambassador in Tbilisi, tried to convince the president to hold back: "Ambassador urged the Foreign Minister and the Deputy Minister of Defense to remain calm, not overreact, and to de-escalate the situation." But it was too late.

On the evening of August 7, Saakashvili decided to ignore all the warnings. The president gave the order to storm the South Ossetian capital. Georgian rocket launchers bombarded Tskhinvali. Saakashvili's artillery even directly fired on the Russian military base and killed soldiers.

On the morning of August 8 at 10:05 a.m., Tefft sent a message to Washington informing US officials that Saakashvili had assured him "that Georgia now controlled most of South Ossetia, including Tskhinvali." Tefft had been taken in by the Georgians: "All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili's statement that this fight was not Georgia's original intention." The ambassador's reasoning was as follows: "Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages, did the offensive to take Tskhinvali begin."

But this was a lie that Saakashvili had to retract a little later.

On the morning of August 8, the Russians intervened on the side of the South Ossetians. A day later, the State Department noted in a classified report that the Russian air force was pummeling the Georgian positions. "Embassy Tbilisi reports Georgian air defense supplies are depleted, making their forces vulnerable to Russian air attacks."

'They Will Move on Tblisi'

Earlier, Saakashvili had lied to the US ambassador again -- apparently in a bid to secure US support. Ambassador Tefft wrote this about himself: "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. They will not stop at retaking South Ossetia, but will move on Tbilisi."

In reality, however, the Russian general staff has no plans to take the Georgian capital.

Two days later, the Russian army had captured South Ossetia, taken control of Georgian airspace, and on August 12 their ground troops stood roughly 50 km (31 miles) from Tbilisi.

Tefft had already submitted the following report to Washington on August 10: "The Georgians suffered terrible losses (estimated in the thousands) overnight." The US ambassador said that Saakashvili's generals were already blaming the fiasco on the Americans: "Georgian military officials have privately expressed deep disappointment with the US and the West for not providing more support against the Russian attack."

There weren't thousands of casualties, but over 800 died in the heavy exchanges of fire, and the Georgians spent the following months try to cover up their responsibility for the war. In March 2009, Saakashvili's close adviser Merabishvili complained to ambassador Tefft about an investigative commission set up by the European Union. The probe, headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, was tasked with determining the cause of the five-day war.

Georgian Concern About EU Probe

The Georgian government was primarily concerned about commission experts Christopher Langton, a retired British army colonel, and Otto Luchterhandt, a law professor at the University of Hamburg. In a report submitted by Tefft on March 10, 2009, the ambassador wrote that Merabishvili saw them both as "expressly pro-Russian and anti-Georgian."

According to Merabishvili, the investigation itself was "designed by German Foreign Minister (Frank-Walter) Steinmeier." The Georgian leadership saw Steinmeier as being "pro-Russian and anti-Georgian as well." Merabishvili was afraid that the investigation was "a means of casting Georgia in a bad light."

At the same time, the Georgian leadership was busy claiming it had been stabbed in the back, as shown by a report submitted by Tefft concerning a conversation with Tbilisi mayor Giorgi Ugulava, a close confidant of Saakashvili. Ugulava told the US ambassador "that there had been an assumption in the government that Tskhinvali could have been held, but only if the international community had defended Georgia's actions immediately."

The Americans appeared increasingly irritated with their self-pitying allies in the Caucasus. The Tagliavini Commission released its report in late September. Saakashvili complained of the report's "strong anti-American bias." The head of the US embassy responded coolly that Washington was focused on "looking ahead rather than back."

Then the Georgian president asked the Americans to at least prevent Latin American countries from recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In response, US Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow told him that the United States is not omnipotent. A letter written by the embassy in Tbilisi on Nov. 2, 2009 reveals how quickly the Americans were now willing to snub Saakashvili. US officials told the president that "in many of the countries considering recognition, the United States had limited ability to influence their policies."

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Reaction from the US Government
In a statement, the White House has condemned the publication of "private diplomatic discussions" with foreign governments by SPIEGEL and four other international media on Sunday. Click on the link below to read the statement in full.
White House Statement
We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.

By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.

To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.

By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.

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