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August War in Leaked Cables
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 2 Dec.'10 / 17:57

  • Cables from the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi;
  • 'Some Allies Parroting Russian Points';
  • NATO 'United in Principle, Split on Actions';
  • Armenia’s Muted 'Exasperation';

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, available at the moment, contain about 116 dispatches related to August, 2008 war in Georgia.

This bunch of cables involve at least 16 classified dispatches originating from the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi, others are from various European capitals and NATO headquarters, as well as from Moscow and few of them are from Yerevan and Baku.

The August war-related cables were first made available on a website of the Moscow-based magazine, Russian Reporter, which said it obtained the documents from WikiLeaks. Some of those August war-related cable, which were posted on the magazine’s website, later also appeared on WikiLeaks website itself.

Tbilisi cables detail the U.S. embassy's reporting of events from early hours of the war and its aftermath, while the cables from the European capitals reveal diplomatic wrangling within the NATO and EU over how to react on Georgia crisis and the cables from Yerevan are revealing Armenia’s muted frustration over, what it felt was, “undeserved cold shoulder” from Tbilisi.
Tbilisi Cables

The first dispatch from the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi, immediately after the launch of hostilities, available at the moment, is dated with August 7, 2008 in which then U.S. ambassador to Georgia, John Tefft, reports to Washington about the start of "intensive fighting" previous evening.

John Tefft, who is now ambassador to Ukraine, was in frequent contact with the senior Georgian officials, including President Saakashvili. He writes in the August 7 dispatch that he had been told by Grigol Vashadze, then Georgian deputy foreign minister and now the foreign minister, that "a full-scale South Ossetian attack" was underway against Georgian villages, which led to death of one Georgian peacekeeper.

In the same dispatch, the ambassador writes, citing OSCE monitors, which were on the ground in the conflict zone at the time, that Georgian forces with GRAD multiple rocket launchers were on the move, "either as part of a show of force or readiness, or both."

"Ambassador urged the [Georgian] Foreign Minister and the Deputy Minister of Defense to remain calm, not overreact, and to de-escalate the situation," the same cable reads.

The ambassador notes in the dispatch that the recent fighting was "atypical" as it did not stop by the daybreak, as it was usually the case.

"From evidence available to us it appears the South Ossetians started today's fighting. The Georgians are now reacting by calling up more forces and assessing their next move. It is unclear to the Georgians, and to us, what the Russian angle is and whether they are supporting the South Ossetians or actively trying to help control the situation," the cable reads.

According to the cable, at mid-day on August 7 the ambassador was told by Batu Kutelia, at the time deputy defense minister and after that Georgia's ambassador to the U.S., that although the Georgian troops were on higher alert, there was no intention to deploy them in response to recent attacks.

But the ambassador also reported in the same cable that the Georgian army's 4th brigade was "noticeably absent" from the training on August 7, which was carried out by the U.S. military instructors at the time. He also reported citing OSCE observers, that the Georgian troops were on the move on the main east-west highway in direction of Gori, a town close to the conflict zone and in addition the embassy observers noticed on the highway about 30 city buses carrying uniformed men heading from Tbilisi.

Next day, on August 8, the U.S. ambassador reported in Washington that he was told by President Saakashvili that the Georgian forces were in control of most of South Ossetia, including Tskhinvali with fighting continuing near Java in the north of breakaway region. At the time, according to the same cable, it still remained unclear for the embassy whether regular Russian army or "North Caucasian irregulars" were engaged in those fighting in the north of Tskhinvali.

The ambassador was also told by Saakashvili, according to the cable, that Tbilisi had no intention of getting into this fight, but was "provoked by the South Ossetians".

"All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili's statement that this fight was not Georgia's original intention," Ambassador Tefft writes. "Key Georgian officials, who would have had responsibility for an attack on South Ossetia, have been on leave and the Georgians only began mobilizing August 7 once the attack was well underway."
This part of the cables was widely publicized in Georgia, including by the nationwide broadcasters as “yet another evidence" backing Georgia's version of events.

In the same cable, the ambassador writes, citing OSCE observers on the ground in Tskhinvali that Georgia's attack on Tskhinvali "began at 23:35 on August 7 despite the cease-fire declared at 19:00" by President Saakashvili. Georgia said it had to open fire after continues attacks on the Georgian villages during the cease-fire period, unilaterally announced by Tbilisi.

"During the night of August 8, four short range ballistic missiles were fired from within Russia toward Tskhinvali," the ambassador reported in the same cable.

He also wrote that most in the Georgian government believed the fighting had started as "a ploy of de facto [South Ossetian] leader [Eduard] Kokoity," but at the time President Saakashvili became concerned "that this might have been a Russian pretext and a further attack could be expected."

In a separate dispatch on the same day, the embassy reported that situation remained "dangerous; however, there is no indication or evidence that Tbilisi is under immediate threat."

Next morning, August 9, after overnight air strikes by Russia, Saakashvili told the ambassador by phone, that Russia was trying to take over Georgia and "install a new regime."

On August 10 Eka Tkeshelashvili, then Georgian foreign minister, briefed the diplomatic corps in Tbilisi that “Georgia has suffered huge casualties.” The U.S. embassy cable on August 10 says that Georgian forces have been pushed out of Tskhinvali and the conflict zone following a massive Russian attack.

On August 11 the ambassador was reporting to Washington that it was “increasingly difficult to get an accurate analysis of the military situation because of the fog of war and the fact that the Georgian command and control system has broken down.”

“Senior government officials sometimes give us different reports of military action,” the August 11 cable reads.

NATO ‘United in Principle, But Difficult to Agree on Action’

As the hostilities in Georgia were unfolding, several U.S. cables from Brussels show, Washington, backed with some Eastern European nations, was taking lead in securing “strong statement” by NATO’s top governing body, North Atlantic Council (NAC), condemning Russia’s actions in Georgia.

But those efforts, as seen from these cables, were met with opposition from Germany, described in one diplomatic dispatch from Brussels as “the standard bearer for pro-Russia camp.”

According to the cables, Germany was also lobbying for canceling already scheduled trip of North Atlantic Council to Georgia in September.

One cable said that deputy chief of Russian mission in NATO warned that NATO-Russia relationship would be "called into question" if the Alliance went ahead with this visit.

“As the crisis situation in Georgia unfolded on August 8, NATO Allies and the International Staff struggled with how to respond,” one cable from NATO headquarters reads. “Unfortunately, the crisis also revealed the continuing divisions within the Alliance on how to address Georgia's desire to join NATO's Membership Action Plan, with Germany and Norway arguing that the upcoming NAC trip should be reconsidered. On the other hand, Poland--a strong supporter of NATO MAP--had argued that the crisis only reinforced the need for the NAC to travel to the region.”

According to these cables, Paris was also against of NATO “becoming too prominent” in the crisis with one French diplomat, as quoted in one dispatch, saying that NATO’s August 8 public statement, calling on all sides to end violence, had been "enough of a NATO role for now."

By August 11 Germany the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and Turkey seemed cautious about NAC trip to Georgia saying that it was too early at that stage to decide on the matter. Eventually it was decided to proceed with the visit, which took place on September 15.

On U.S.-proposed strong-worded statement on Russia’s actions in Georgia, NATO allies failed to reach a consensus. According to one cable from Brussels, although all the allies were unanimous in the need to immediate halt the hostilities, some argued that adopting highly-critical language against Russia was not the best way to do that.

“The Balts, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and the UK also wanted a strong statement. Germany countered, hoping for harmony between EU, OSCE and NATO messages and cautioning that any statement by the NAC should ‘help in defusing tensions.’ This German perspective was backed by France, Turkey, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Italy and Slovakia,” a cable from the Brussels reads, adding that France was also cautious as it thought that NATO statement could have undermined French attempts to negotiate a settlement in its capacity of EU Presidency.

One cable from Brussels, detailing NATO Political Committee meeting on August 11, described the situation as NATO being “united in principle, but difficult to agree on action.”

‘Some Allies Parroting Russian Points on Georgian Culpability’

According to these cables, some NATO allies’ reservations were triggered by doubts that it was Tbilisi, which started the recent hostilities.

The August 11 dispatch from NATO headquarters recommends Washington that “intelligence releasable to NATO Allies on this point might be a useful tool”. 

“A number of Allies - especially Germany - are parroting Russian points on Georgian culpability for the crisis,” this cable reads.

Notion about Tbilisi’s culpability was so widespread that even some officials from Georgia’s strongest supports were privately questioning the Georgian authorities’ actions immediately before the launch of large-scale hostilities.

One cable from the U.S. embassy in Warsaw says that Poland took “surprisingly forceful leadership” in supporting Georgia. In a separate cable, detailing a meeting between U.S. diplomat and late chief of staff of the Polish Armed Forces, Gen. Franciszek Gagor, the latter is quoted as saying that Saakashvili made “an extremely bad decision to move into South Ossetia and played directly into Russia's hands.”

“Poland believes Saakashvili was manipulated by Russian agents - possibly even among his advisors – to open the door for military action in Georgia with the object of destabilizing the Georgian government,” Gen. Gagor, who died in Smolensk plane crash, suggested, according the cable.

Several cables show that the U.S. diplomats were advising Georgian authorities to launch “effective public diplomacy” to push for its version of events as “Europeans in some countries believe that Georgia had started the conflict, that the U.S. is to blame for encouraging Georgia.”

Armenia’s Muted 'Exasperation'

One cable from Yerevan details a conversation between Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and U.S. charge d'affaires on August 11 in which the Armenian official asked for assistance in freeing cargo shipments, which he said, Georgian authorities were holding up. Armenia’s import largely depends on commodities shipped via Georgia.

According to this cable, the Armenian official suggested that Georgian authorities were holding cargo, destined for Armenia, for commandeering these kinds of critical staple goods for Georgian national needs during time of war. According to the cables from Yerevan, Armenia was also complaining about “enormous price increase” by two Georgian companies, providing shipment services to Armenia, few days before the war started (Armenian PM publicly spoke about price hikes and complained about it in June, 2009).

The issue was again raised by Yerevan on August 14, when the U.S. charge d’affaires was summoned by Armenian PM Tigran Sargsyan to express “urgent concern” about continued problems with shipments.

“The PM complained that while Georgian authorities denied clearance for critical goods already at the Georgia-Armenia border to enter Armenia once the conflict was underway, Georgian shipments to Azerbaijan continued without disruption,” the cable from the U.S. embassy in Yerevan reads.

The U.S. diplomat, according to the cable, responded that the first step toward resolving Armenia's supply problem was for the Russians to end their military activity in Georgia and urged Yerevan “to use its influence in that direction.”

The Armenian PM, according to the cable, also complained that Lado Gurgenidze, who at the time was Georgia’s PM, was “no longer taking my calls” and suggested that Georgia might be punishing Armenia for its close relations with Russia.

"We have not made this into a public issue," the Armenian PM was quoted in the cable, “because we are trying to protect the good relationship we have with Georgia.”

In a separate cable, detailing developments of August 15, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan was reporting to Washington that “top Armenian officials are growing increasingly offended by Georgians’ non-responsiveness to Armenian efforts to reach out.”

“The most discourteous, perhaps, was the Georgian FM's refusal even to meet FM Nalbandian for a few minutes in Yerevan airport, as she passed through en route overland to Georgia in the early morning of August 15,” the cable reads and adds that one the Armenian Foreign Minister even described Tbilisi’s stance as “hostile attitude.” He said that President Saakashvili had refused to return repeated calls from his Armenian counterpart and the Georgian PM had ignored calls from his Armenian counterpart.
According to the cable, the Armenian Foreign Minister told the U.S. diplomat that Yerevan was trying to help Georgia by taking in more than 4,000 refugees and offering to serve as a humanitarian corridor for international relief efforts.

"What more do they want from us?" the cable quoted Armenian Foreign Minister, saying the Armenian authorities were "avoiding any negative public statements about Georgia" and warned that were such a statement to be made, the reaction of ethnic Armenians in Javakheti region of Georgia would be “very dangerous” for Georgia.

“Despite the obvious threat behind his words, Nalbandian insisted that ‘this is not a card we could play’ with Georgia, but ‘just a reality’,” the cable reads.

According to the same cable, despite mounting exasperation expressed privately, the Armenian officials had kept their public statements about Georgia “determinedly positive”.

Armenian President, Serzh Sarkisyan, visited Georgia on September 30, 2008. During the visit the Georgian President thanked Yerevan for supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity and said that the two countries would boost economic cooperation.

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