Who Pushed Saakashvili’s August 7 Button?

The Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, whose army the Russians routed in South Ossetia this week, accused the Bush administration of promising to support his bid to reassert Georgian control of the Russian-backed breakaway province, but when it came to the crunch, Washington backed off.

This was how Shaakashvili presented his army’s defeat to the rulers of five former Warsaw Pact nations when they landed in Tbilisi to show solidarity with beleaguered Georgia, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources.

Their presence on the platform in Tbilisi’s parliament square helped their ally turn the popular flag-waving rally Tuesday night, Aug.12, into a victory celebration.

The next day, Presidents Lech Kaczynski of Poland, Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, Toomas Hendrik IIves of Estonia, Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania, and prime minister Ivars Godmanis of Latvia, presented a solid anti-Moscow front at a news conference in the Georgian capital.

They denigrated Moscow’s treatment of Georgia as worthy of the Nazis in World War II and called on the world to act before it was too late, indicating concern that their own countries faced the same fate as Georgia.

“Once again, Russia has shown its true face,” they said.

The Ukraine president then signed a decree imposing restrictions on the Russian Black Sea fleet’s use of its main base at Sevastopol port.

Later that day, the Georgian president repeated his charge, asserting at a briefing to Israeli correspondents that he had acted in South Ossetia with the full knowledge and consent of President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney.

Aside from the rumors swirling around the US capital, a senior Washington source involved in the administration’s Caucasian policies told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that he had no knowledge of any green light from the Bush administration for Shaakashvili to go into South Ossetia and capture the capital of Tskhinvali a week earlier.

He stated that the United States had not planned or taken part in the Georgian president’s “August surprise,” and was just as bowled over as Moscow.


Saakashvili’s pretexts vary


In an earlier statement, the Georgian president offered a different pretext, claiming to have sent his troops marching after receiving reports that the Russian military was approaching the Georgian border. And indeed, officials in Washington had picked up the rising tensions around South Ossetia in the last few weeks, although never expected the situation to deteriorate into a full-blown conflict.

The question of who pushed the button for the Caucasian war depends on the responder’s perspective.

During a private dinner on July 9, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice‘s aides reported to the New York Times that she warned the Georgian president not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win.

“She told him in no uncertain terms that he had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table,” according to a senior official who accompanied the secretary to Tbilisi.

This disclosure indicates that Washington was aware of Saakashvili’s intentions a month before their execution – and warned him off.

Another Washington sources asks: Why then did the Americans not take this further and stop him short with a substantial obstacle? Are not US policies in this sensitive region too important to settle by a warning over dinner?

Another DEBKA-Net-Weekly Washington source disclosed that a discreet inquiry is underway to discover whether president Saakashvili’s claim has any substance and whether during the political, military and diplomatic exchanges ongoing between Tbilisi and Washington, information of his planned invasion of Tskhinvali had not been dropped in the ear of an American contact, who for some reason failed to refer it to the right quarter.

The lack of response to such a hint might have been taken by Saakashvili as tacit US permission to go ahead.

For instance, during the July 15-31 Immediate Response maneuver held by the US, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia at the Vaziani base near Tbilisi, an American commander may have heard a Georgian fellow-officer gossiping about an impending attack and discounted it as bluster not worth reporting.


The fallout for American credibility in Eurasia


A US inquiry also took place in Israel to discover whether the Israeli military and security advisers to the Georgian army had been clued in advance. They asked if the Georgian president had asked them for advice on tactics, or suddenly placed urgent orders in July for extra supplies of ammunition, spare parts or medicines. Any of these incidents should have tipped someone off about the coming operation.

However, none of the informal American probes to date have brought to light signs that a US or Israeli political, intelligence or military contact had advance knowledge of the Georgian president’s plans for South Ossetia.

When he came to power four years ago, Mikhail Saakashvili, 40, a Columbia University law school graduate, who worked at a New York-based law firm, pledged to fight corruption and poverty and recover the two Russian-backed secessionist enclaves.

Of late, an American source in Tbilisi reported that he had gained enormous confidence and begun talking brashly about the hiding his army could give Moscow for the sake of regaining Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and winning a straight run to NATO membership. But there was no sign he had moved from words to actions.

The US probe into the original trigger of the Georgian operation is vital to find out how a single, fairly amateurish operation, more like a toy soldiers’ exercise than a 21st century military assault, was allowed to happen.

The cost has been prohibitive. At one fell swoop, it jeopardized many of the strategic gains America chalked up in the post-Soviet states of Central Asia in seven years, ever since they agreed to host American bases for the Afghanistan War. Washington is stuck with explaining to them and its East European allies the sequence of events and US laxity in failing to give them due warning.


Bush removes one glove, Moscow is not intimidated


The five presidents of the Baltic states, Ukraine and Poland, came forward and showed the flag for Saakashvili in Tbilisi’s parliament square Tuesday night. But the rulers of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and even NATO ally Turkey, have been eloquently silent.

Sensing how badly American credibility has suffered, President Bush finally removed one glove seven days into the conflict with an implicit, indirect military challenge to Russia’s domination of the Georgian arena.

He sent the US Air Force and Navy on a humanitarian mission to Georgia, saying: “We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads, and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources: This was a veiled ultimatum to the Russian army to relinquish its control of Georgian airspace, sea coast and land routes – in other words, comply with the ceasefire for a full military withdrawal – or else risk a direct clash with the incoming American military.

Moscow was not immediately intimidated.

Aiming also at the line of pro-US East Europen rulers backing Saakasvhili, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov shot back by calling Georgia's leadership “a special project of the United States.” At some point, he said, the US will have to choose “either support for a virtual project or real partnership [with Russia] on issues that demand collective action.”

Bush’s action may be too late to rebuild America’s Eurasian allies trust in his or future US administrations. Neither of his potential successors have acted to inspire confidence in America’s solid reliability as a security mainstay for their regimes.

While the Republican hopeful Senator John McCain declared histrionically on Aug. 12, “Now We are all Georgians,” his rival, the Democratic Senator Barack Obama first wholeheartedly condemn the Russian attack, then called for “restraint on both sides” and did not entirely absolve Georgia of a role in provoking Moscow.


Moscow is convinced of a CIA conspiracy…


In Moscow, most political, intelligence and military circles are utterly convinced that the conflict was the product of a US intelligence conspiracy to exploit Russian prime minsiter Vladimir Putin’s absence at the Olympic Games in Beijing for a punch that would bring the Russian military low for some time to come.

They hold up apparent evidence of provocations and terrorist attacks on Russian security forces in North Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Chechnya in recent months, claiming funds and arms were funelled to these terrorists from Georgia by Georgian agents.

On Aug. 11, the head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Alexander Botnikov, reported the arrest of 10 Georgian intelligence service officers allegedly caught snooping on military facilities and preparing terrorist attacks in Russia.

On Aug. 12, Russian security forces were reported by the FBS to have detained a top Georgian intelligence officer on charges of collecting data on Russian troops in the North Caucasus and the president of South Ossetia.

His surname was given as Kherksladze, and he was quoted as describing himself as the deputy head of Georgian’s Foreign Intelligence Service.

The FSB said he had been running a network of agents collecting information in Russia, including on “mlitary and strategic facilities in the Southern Federal District.”

The Russian security service also accused Georgia’s secret service of trying to organize underground military groups in the North Caucasus.

They claimed to have arrested a “Russian national” called Ramsan Turkoshvili, who “confessed to being recruited by Georgian secret services with the direct involvement of one of the terrorist chiefs hiding out in the Pankisi gorge.”

According to the unofficial consensus in Moscow, all these provocations were deliberately staged to distract the attention of the Russian army and intelligence from Georgia’s war preparations for South Ossetia.

Now, they say, after the Georgian army’s defeat, the Americans are feigning ignorance of Saakasvhili’s scheme.


… Or else Saakashvili is passing the buck for his defeat


But how is it possible, they ask, that US satellites which pick up every military and oil-related movement in the region, missed the movement of the bulk of Georgia’s 20,000-strong army, laden with combat gear, up to the South Ossetian boundary?

And if the satellites were blind, how could all the officers of the 160-member US militiary mission in Tbilisi failed to have noticed the Georgian troops’ mass exodus from their bases and advance towards South Ossetia?

Even assuming Washington’s improbable advance ignorance of Georgian military movements, the Americans were there on the spot to order Saakashvili to halt his offensive when it began Thursday, Aug. 7.

The Russians found another sign that Washington was in on the Georgian plan in the sudden exodus a week before the Georgian operation of the entire Israeli Tbilisi-based community of military advisers, personnel of security firms working with the Georgian army and private businessmen.

If the Israelis knew what was up, the Americans could not conceivably have been uninformed, say the Russian sources.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources asked a group of Israeli advisers well-acquainted with the Georgian president whether he was capable of going to war without a green light from Washington. Some thought it possible, given his tempermental nature. One described him as quick-witted, an excellent economic manager who had transformed his country by prudent reforms, but a total ignoramus in military matters and hardware.

They agreed that Saakashivili does not recognize the limits of power and often bragged his army could wipe the floor with the Russians.

In three years, he sank one bilion dollars in the military. He was certainly swell-headed enough to believe he could go it alone, said one Israeli military adviser.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s analysts note: If that is what happened, he will have to face the music at home for losing two provinces of sovereign Georgia. Still ahead are destabilizing rumbles against his government, possibly even a putsch.

Pointing the finger at the Bush administration for approving his actions and then leaving him in the lurch, true or not, is an unconvincing attempt to pass the buck.

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