09.26.11

Saakashvili: U.S. Stopped Russia Bombings

For months, bombings linked to Russian intelligence disrupted life in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. In an exclusive interview with Eli Lake, the country’s president credits the Obama administration—particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—for stopping them through quiet diplomacy.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is crediting the Obama administration for engaging in quiet diplomatic intervention with Russia and helping to end a string of bombings that had terrorized his former Soviet republic over the past year.

“The main reason why the bombings have stopped was diplomacy from the U.S.,” Saakashvili told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.

Georgian officials have accused Russian military intelligence of aiding the bombings as part of a long-running feud between the two countries that flared into war in August 2008. Saakashvili said the approach of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was particularly tough and effective.

“I know firsthand Hillary Clinton raised this several times with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov,” he said. “This was not just raised for the sake of formality, she was very insistent and very tough on that one. On a public level, it was much less visible, but what we know from diplomatic considerations is that the administration was pretty tough. And you know the result is there. Since they started to do that...the bombings have stopped so far.”

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, confirmed the U.S. efforts. “The Obama administration has acted swiftly to investigate these bombings and has discussed these incidents at the highest levels with our Russian government counterparts,” the official said.

The issue is particularly sensitive since Sept. 22, 2010, when a bomb exploded at the exterior wall of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi and another unexploded bomb was found in a parking lot there. Two U.S. intelligence assessments, one completed in January and the second in July, conclude the embassy bombing was directed by a major in Russian military intelligence named Yevgeny Borisov.

The Georgian government attributes seven bombings in the last year and five foiled attempts to Russian efforts to destabilize the country.

The Russian Embassy in Washington and a public relations firm representing the Russian Foreign Ministry declined to comment. In the past, the foreign ministry and the embassy in Washington have denied any involvement in the U.S. Embassy bombing and the spate of attacks in Georgia.

Saakashvili told the Daily Beast that he believes the bombings, including the attack on the U.S. Embassy, were ordered at the most senior levels of the Russian government. “I have known Vladimir Putin for a long time,” he said of the current Russian prime minister and former president. “He enjoys, he is crazy about planning the individual details of special operations. He is much more involved in those details than in wider threats. I cannot imagine somebody touching a topic as sensitive as Georgia is for Russia, especially for Putin, without Putin having firsthand knowledge or command of it.”

Asked why the Russians would bomb the U.S. Embassy, he said: “I think it was a very clear message. The message is ‘This is our backyard, we are going to get you, and stay away. We will do here whatever we decide to do.’”

On Saturday, after the interview with Saakashvili, Putin announced that he would seek the Russian presidency again in next year’s elections.

Senior Georgian officials say U.S. pressure on Moscow in regards to the bombings increased after The Washington Times ran a series of reports on the embassy incident in July and August.

The Georgian president strongly complimented President Obama but also acknowledged that the U.S. administration has not agreed to sell the anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons his country has been asking for since 2009. Saakashvili said he has told senior U.S. officials not to trust Russian intentions. “They think the cold war is not over. They have to take revenge for this,” he said.

The Obama administration has come under criticism from many Republicans for pursuing a policy of reset with Russia following Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia. To this day, Russian troops occupy the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have declared independence. The Swiss government has mediated talks between Georgia and Russia over the dispute.

The Obama administration has said the second phase of its reset with Russia will be helping it join the World Trade Organization. Russian membership would require the unanimous support of all states already in the WTO, giving Georgia, a member, a technical veto over Russia’s candidacy.

Georgian officials have said they will veto Russia’s membership to the body unless Moscow allows Georgian customs agents to monitor the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russia, something Russia has refused.

In the interview, Saakashvili backed away slightly from Georgia’s earlier position and said he is asking for a “minimum technical concept” to allow any “international public organization” to monitor the border. “If we cannot agree to it, we would not look solid in the eyes of our population,” he said.

Thomas Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the United States supports continued negotiations between Russia and Georgia. “We are impressed with the work that the Swiss government has done to find a fair compromise between Georgia and Russia on this set of issues. We are urging both sides to engage very seriously on the Swiss proposals,” he said.

Saakashvili also said he supports the Afghanistan war effort, despite other European countries heading for the exits. Georgia has sent 1,000 troops to Afghanistan, and its military is in the process of deploying an additional 1,000 troops to the front.

Saakashvili said he “constantly” talks to his public about the need for Georgia to contribute to the Afghan war. “We have a long experience on this, the geopolitical weakness of the Western world,” he said. “These terrorists are an immediate threat. We need to be there.”

Saakashvili said he has told senior U.S. officials not to trust Russian intentions. “They think the cold war is not over. They have to take revenge for this,” he said.

He also said Georgia benefits by fighting alongside a coalition of Democratic nations. “We need to have, we want to have a professional army,” he said. “They have to be on the mission as well. That is also very important for the future.”

For Saakashvili in particular, navigating the U.S. relationship has been tricky. He has enjoyed a friendship with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), whom Obama bested in the 2008 elections.

“I think John McCain is the closest friend we have worldwide,” Saakashvili said. “I have tremendous respect for him.”

Georgia would welcome the installation of an X-Band radar inside the country to participate in a regional missile defense for Central Asia and the Middle East against Iran, he said. Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) have pressed the Pentagon to cancel the installation of the X-Band radar in Turkey scheduled for later this year and instead move it to Georgia.

Turkey’s leaders have said they would not share data from the radar with Israel. That is not Saakashvili’s view. “We are willing to share with any country, including Israel,” he said.